However, this year’s fall flock may be duller than usual in many places due to an exceptionally hot and dry summer, which put the trees under stress. Massachusetts, which is one of the most popular areas for leaf-peeping throughout New England, was in severe drought for much the summer. Portions of the Midwest and the West were — and still are — under severe to exceptional drought conditions.
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“In general, moderate heat and drought can move leaf senescence (leaf drying up and dropping),”Andy Finton, conservation ecologist at Massachusetts’ Nature Conservancy, wrote an email. In these areas of drought, Finton said that fall colors will likely be more yellowed and browned.
He said that people can still find vibrant pockets in wetter areas and wetlands.
We explain what causes the changes in colors, where they are now, and how you can enjoy them.
Why does the color of leaves change?
The leaves are like mini-solar panels for plants. They absorb sunlight and then produce food or glucose through photosynthesis. This requires them to store the energy in sunlight. Chlorophyll is a color that absorbs red and blue wavelengths of light, but not green. Chlorophyll is a pigment that bounces green light away. This is why we see it as green.
The days are shorter in autumn. This means less sunlight for plants and leaves stop producing nutrients. Different colors emerge from the chlorophyll as it is broken down.
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Some other chemical reactions can increase the color of some other colors in fall. Near-freezing temperatures can increase red anthocyanin colors. However, readings below 32 degree Fahrenheit will cause an early frost which weakens colors. Rain and overcast sky can also affect fall foliage.
“For best fall color, temperature and the amount of moisture are the main influences coupled with the duration and angle of sunlight,”Kyle Cotner is the creator of theFoliageReport.comIn an email, he wrote: “For the best color to be displayed, an area needs cool nights (yet not freezing) with sun-filled warm days.”
The leaf-shedding process starts when the leaves are taking too much energy away from the tree. The tree’s ability to shed leaves during winter helps conserve water and allows them to use less energy.
Finton stated that severe drought in many parts of the country has accelerated this year’s drop in leaf count. The stressed trees were unable to maintain their leaves and started shedding earlier.
“This means they turn brown, before they have a chance to break down their green colors to expose yellows and oranges underneath, and before they have a chance to develop brilliant red colors for species like red maple and sumac,”Finton wrote.
However, in areas that are not severely affected by drought, he said recent rains and cool temperatures have allowed some trees’ leaves to stay on the ground long enough to show more reds.
Where are the colors changing now?
Higher elevation trees tend to peak first because they respond first the the dwindling sunlight hours which triggers the color change.
Only the extreme northern tip in New England is at peak color this year, and that is only because it is earlier than last. Cotner’s roundup notes that “high color”It can be found in Vermont’s Green Mountains and in Maine’s northern Aroostook Country.
Finton and Cotner stated that a recent drop of temperatures had likely triggered more rapid change in these states. They were not adversely affected by drought this summer.
“Recent cold weather played a large role in fall colors within the Northeast and parts of the Mid-Atlantic region,”Cotner. “Compared to last year, we at The Foliage Report notice leaves moving much quicker to peak fall color due to the colder weather.”
Finton stated that peak autumn color is yet to arrive in Massachusetts. The state’s western region has higher elevations and then moves towards Boston and along the coast. However, leaf color has not been affected by severe drought in the region.
“In eastern Massachusetts, we’re seeing less fall color and some earlier color,”Finton wrote. “Some trees have leaves that have withered before having a chance to turn color.”
The Northeast is currently in the midst of an intense drought
Most of the eastern U.S., north of the Mason-Dixon Line and away from the coast, is in the “low color” category according to Cotner’s roundup, as are areas in the Appalachians across the interior Mid-Atlantic. Forecasts indicate that the Mid-Atlantic’s lower elevations will peak around Oct. 24, while the northern West Virginia peaks above 3,000 feet are close to peaking.
Although not much color is reported in the Southeast and Desert Southwest regions, forecasts indicate that the peak may be at the beginning of November.
Low to moderate color is common throughout the West, especially in the Columbia River Basin. Some mountain peaks have high-to-peak color. Splashes of color are also showing up in California’s Sierra Nevada. Forecasts predict that color will increase through October, with the most noticeable changes occurring in the mountains and the lowest in the valleys.
The Upper Midwest, northern Great Lakes and Corn Belt, as well as parts of the Ozarks, are experiencing low to moderate colors. However, their foliage will quickly change over the next few weeks. Northern Minnesota is currently in the “high color”category, and approximately one week from peak.
Cotner states that regardless of where you live, there are some opportunities. place for a hint of color — though it may require a bit of driving.
“Every U.S. state except for Hawaii (the hardiness zone is too high, stays green all year) has fall foliage,”He wrote. “From the tundra in north Alaska (peaks in August) to the cypress trees in the swamps of central Florida (peaks in December) there is fall color to be found.”