Sorry, Leaf Peepers: Experts Warn Fall Foliage Might Not Be As Plentiful This Year

published Oct 8, 2020
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
Credit: Bryant Jayme

Fall lovers wait all year long for the first sign of leaves changing from green to red, orange, and yellow, signaling that fall has, in fact, officially arrived. But scoping out fall foliage might be tougher than ever this year, with experts noting that extreme weather conditions across various parts of the country might mean that leaf peeping season arrives not only earlier than ever before, but that it might pass by much more quickly than in years past.

CNN reported that perfect foliage requires a few important conditions, including temps that aren’t too hot but aren’t too cold and the right amount of moisture. But it seems that severe drought conditions in many states—per CNN, over 75 percent of the west is currently under drought conditions (including areas impacted by poor air quality due to wildfires), and over 80 percent of Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire are experiencing “severe drought”—might mean a shorter window of opportunity for those who love leaf peeping.

As for how a lack of rain impacts trees, it turns out that droughts can cause them “physiological stress.” (Yes, really.) “The colors this year are coming about two weeks earlier than normal and will probably go by fast and furiously,” Dr. William Keeton, a Forest Ecology and Forestry Professor at the University of Vermont told CNN. “Largely, this is because the drought creates stress for the trees—physiological stress. So from that standpoint, while the drought may enhance some of the colors, the stress is not a good thing and may be a harbinger of things to come with climate change.”

It’s also bad news for tree health in general, according to Kaitlyn Weber, a data analyst for Climate Central. “In terms of fall foliage, drought can cause the leaves to change colors earlier, but they may also die and fall off earlier. Prolonged and more extreme drought can cause physical damage to trees such as root loss, slowed growth, and makes it harder for trees to protect themselves against pests and disease.”

Though this certainly sounds like a bummer, it’s not all bad news for leaf lovers. Those in the southeast and midwest should expect flourishing fall foliage this year, and according to Dr. Keeton, “this year we are seeing exceptionally vibrant fall foliage in Vermont. He noted this is “due to a combination of factors, including good tree growth last year, mild drought and both warm days and cool nights over the last month.”

The problem is that the effects of widespread droughts on foliage often doesn’t show their true impact until the following years. “A mild to moderate drought may actually enhance fall foliage to some degree, so long as it didn’t lead to a lot of ‘browning’ or early leaf drop,” explained Dr. Keeton. “Then again, drought one year may mean less robust leaf production the next,” which might lead to poorer foliage.

Extreme heat due to climate change also has an impact, because when things stay exceptionally warm, the trees don’t get the signal that it’s time to change pigments. “The causes of fall foliage are complex and actually not entirely understood,” said Dr. Keeton. “Drought is only one of several factors, the others being photoperiod and the contrast between daytime and nighttime temperatures in autumn. All of this just goes to show how fascinating our forest ecosystems are.”