Why Fall Color Has Been So Meh in Parts of the U.S. This Year

A hot fall and excess rain robbed much of the East Coast of its annual leaf show

Autumn Leaves
Wikimedia Commons

Besides the pumpkin spice and surfeit of fun-size candy bars, the best part of fall may very well be the fall foliage. But this year, in parts of the country, Mother Nature has conspired to rob leaf peepers of the harvest gold, flame orange and vibrant burgundies they've grown accustomed to. Maddie Stone at Earther reports that this year is a particularly “meh” one for fall color in parts of the U.S.

The Foliage Network, a website that keeps close tabs on fall color across the nation, more or less gave up on the mid-Atlantic this year, writing in its October 25 report:

Yeeesh. Not sure what else to say about this foliage season in the region. I believe all hopes for a ‘peak’ are long gone. It looks as though the best that can be expected is moderate color. With many trees, especially maples, the leaves are simply turning brown and falling. In many locations, there is a mix of green, some fall color, and bare trees. This is truly a bizarre foliage season.

Brown County Indiana, a leaf-peeping mecca in the Midwest that draws lots of tourists to its flaming forests, is also a dud, with leaves still green at the end of October.

What’s the deal? AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler tells Doyle Rice at USA Today that two things have short-circuited fall color. First, September and early October in the eastern United States were warmer than normal. Leaves are signaled to begin their journey to Colorville when nights begin to cool off causing them to stop producing green chlorophyll, something that just didn’t happen in the right time frame this year. The wet summer also didn’t help. Leaves are showiest when it's relatively dry, and the past summer was one of the wettest on record. That’s led to an outbreak of anthracnose fungus in the South, which causes leaves to just wither up and die.

There have been some literal bright spots. Though the foliage came at a later date this year, by October, the Adirondacks region in northern New York reported “95-100 percent color change and average-to-bright shades of golden-yellow and russet, along with some oranges and red.” The Upper Midwest around the Great Lakes reported “mostly moderate color,” which the Foliage Network classifies as a 31-60 percent change. Some high elevation spots in the West were good. And Maine and New England were also slightly delayed, but eventually let loose their annual barrage of leafy fireworks.

Stone at Earther reports that the flame-out that happened in the Mid-Atlantic and South might not be so unusual going forward as climate change makes things warmer and wetter. It might even begin impacting the fall-color strongholds in New England. A recent report on climate change by the U.S. Forest Service indicates that warmer wetter winters and insect infestation will impact the color-producing sugar maples and birch that really make New England pop, and less colorful species will begin migrating into maple forests from southern New England.

Already in the last 50 years, the peak of leaf peeping season in New England has shifted by a couple weeks, Jason Margolis at PRI reports, and increasing variability makes it harder for tourists to schedule their visits. The changing climate is also stressing out maple trees, which produce less sugar during warm weather, threatening maple syrup production.

But at least New England still has color. The poor souls in Maryland, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas will have to march into winter without all those bright leaves to think back on, only memories of roaring leaf blowers and a few stale Snickers to remind them it was once fall.

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