New England Fall Foliage Outlook For 2012

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Perhaps you haven’t noticed yet, but there are signs of fall beginning to show up all around us. The sun is setting a little earlier, and rising a little later. The birdsongs of spring and summer have quieted now as the birds molt before migrating. The last of the wildflowers: the goldenrod, the JoePye weed, and the asters are all starting to bloom. And believe it or not, the first fall foliage is but a month away.

New Englanders look forward to the Autumn season with eager anticipation every year. It’s a season full of celebration, preparation, and beauty, complete with foliage, fairs and festivals.  Because of this, New England is known worldwide and draws many visitors who have planned dream vacations to enjoy the season with us.

As these visitors diligently try to time and pinpoint their trips to see peak conditions, I’m most often asked:

  1. When will peak be this year?
  2. How good are the colors going to be this year?

The good news is that in general, the leaves follow a predictable pattern in a given location year after year. Peak generally occurs within a two week window, and the weeks surrounding peak are usually full of color. Additionally, New England has enough geographic and geologic variability that if the colors somehow disappoint in a particular spot, you typically need not drive far to find color in a different valley, or elevation, or aspect. If you travel the around time of the historical peak, beautiful foliage colors will not be hard to find. Yankee Foliage has a great map of average peak foliage times to aid in your planning!

Dramatic Skies Over Mount Morgan By Jim Salge

View Of New England Foliage Over Squam Lake in 2011

Those questions of when and how are nonetheless merited though, as no two foliage seasons are ever alike. Seasons can be short or long, red or orange, early or late. We know good years when we see them, and like last year, we know poor years. We know that the best years are made possible by a warm, reasonably wet spring, a moderate summer with adequate rainfall and an autumn season that features a dominance of warm, dry days and cool nights, with only occasional rainfall.

So how will this year stack up?

To start that conversation we have to take a look back at the past year, and see what stresses the trees have endured since last foliage season. In a nutshell, for the year, temperatures have been above normal, and precipitation around normal, but the individual events that comprise this ‘normal’ have been anything but. And this could complicate this years autumn outlook.

Last year, the season of autumn colors came to an abrupt end with a historic snowstorm in October, which caused considerable disruption, as well as damage to the trees which had yet to shed their leaves for the season. This impressive storm was far from a winter harbinger though, as it turned out to be the single biggest snow event of the entire year.  Region wide, this past winter ended in the bottom five on record for snow, and Concord, New Hampshire had their least winter snowfall ever.  By spring, the lack of any snow pack created extremely anomalously dry soil moisture conditions in the spring, as instead of mud-season while the trees bud out, we had brush-fires.

Warm, Dry and Snowless Winter

The winter of 2011-2012 was generally warm and dry in New England.

In addition to the warm, dry winter, we had the warmest spring on record as well. In late March, Boston had five consecutive all time daily record highs, each above 80 degrees. This heat caused the trees to bud out and flower as much as a month early, but when temperatures then returned to only reasonably above normal, the leaf out was again halted for a few more weeks. Unfortunately, during this time, some areas received a frost that damaged flowers and tender vegetation. This very early spring and frost damage may impact fall foliage, but it will certainly affect the autumn apple and grape crops in many areas. Though I couldn’t find any New England statistics, New York state has reported a 200 million dollar loss in apples, peaches and cherries alone!

Following the historically warm spring, summer actually started off with below normal temperatures in June, the first cooler than normal month in the Northeast in over a year. July and August have gone right back above normal though, and, especially in the western portions of New England, rainfall has been sparse. Drought conditions across the Berkshires and Connecticut could be a major player in the foliage this year.

US Drought Conditions as of August

Parts of New England are Experiencing Drought Conditions

Relatively dry conditions can cause the leaves to turn a bit ahead of schedule, but they can also help bring out strong fall colors when teamed with favorable autumn conditions. An early spring can also cause leaves to turn earlier than historical averages, and we did have a historically early spring. But as we learned last year, a predictable and perhaps favorable set up holds true only if the autumn weather cooperates.

Last year, a relatively good spring and summer setup was muted due to a warm wet autumn.  These conditions usually limit autumn colors, but they were also exacerbated by an outbreak of leaf fungus called anthracnose, which while present every year, really flourished in 2011.  We do not yet see this becoming a major player this year.

Instead, the long term forecasts for this fall are based upon the development of a weak El Nino pattern. In this type of pattern, the Northern tier of the country tends to stay a bit more mild, but is influenced largely by a split jet stream. This can, and very well might give us a very favorable autumn of warm days, cool nights, and relatively dry weather. Only a pattern like this will bring about the strong red colors that seem to come around every few years, so we can hope that the forecasts are right for a favorable fall.

Long Range Temperature Outlook For Fall and Winter

Long Range Temperature Outlook For Fall and Winter

So what does all this mean?

To sum all this up, and give my official outlook, I would say that chances are good for an autumn season that comes a bit early, especially in the western portions of the region. I would also say that it the trees in New England have been through some rather unprecedented events in the past year, and it is therefore difficult to predict the strength of the overall colors, but conditions could be favorable for the development of red pigments this autumn. Otherwise, it may just shape out to be an average color year that emerges a bit early.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be providing more details as to estimated peak times for the 2012 foliage season, as well as give insight into events, regions and the overall attraction of the autumn season in New England. I hope you check back often, and follow along with me as we move closer and closer to this most anticipated season!

  • If you want to see foliage in Acadia, you won’t see it until after the wedding. You may miss peak in the northern White Mountains, but may time it well still for the southeastern Whites. There is always the lakes region of New Hampshire as well, which tends to go later than the central Whites.

    My vote is after!

    Enjoy the weddings and the trip!

  • Wow I have really enjoyed your posts. My sisters is getting married in Rinebeck NY Oct 6. My husband and I have a chance to travel before or after either beginning Sept 27th in Acadia and making our way to the White Mtns and then down to NY to arrive for the wedding on Oct 6 OR leaving after the wedding and then making our way north to the white mountains and then Acadia thru Oct 16th. Which do you think would be our best options. We are really excited. THanks again for the wonderful information.

  • what are the chance of seeing any color starting next week… we will be in haifax, nova scotia, bar harbor beginning Wednesday 9/12

  • Hi Linda…

    We definately need a good year after last year!

    I have noticed a few stressed trees for sure, and some early bold color, but the predominant color remains green, with most leaves pretty healthy. Every year, a few trees go early, some years more, some less, but I think that as long as normal weather leads up to late September, we’ll be fine!

    Hope for cool nights, warm days, and average rainfall!!!

  • Hi Norval,

    Baxter State Park peaks in late September,
    Moosehead Lake tends not to be far behind…

    Rangeley will peak in EARLY October,
    and the central lakes by Columbus Day.

    Acadia tends to peak around the third weekend,
    and the mid/southcoast a bit after Acadia.

    You can get a solid six weeks of color touring around Maine!
    I’ll post your question on our facebook page this week…hopefully you’ll get more responses too!

  • Hi Jim,

    As I’ve got a friend visiting from England in mid-October, I found your report to be encouraging that there might still be a hint of color here or there when she arrives but every time I look outside the window here in southeastern Connecticut, I see more and more trees that have already started to change and my own yard has already gathered quite a few colored leaves from the tree by the yard.

    On a drive up to the Portsmouth area this past Saturday, I saw quite a few trees along Interstate 95 that had already started to change. Do these early changes indicate that perhaps we are looking at a really early season this year or do you think that these just might be a few strays – or rebels if you will – who are getting a jump on the season way before any of the other trees?

    After last year’s somewhat disappointing season, I’ve got my fingers crossed for a good show this year!

  • Jim,

    What areas in Maine would you recommend and what are you predictions for peak times in those areas?

  • Hi Danita,

    It really depends on what you want to see. If you are planning to see the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, I would pick early October. If you were going to see the coast or Southern New England, I would pick the third week or so. It depends on where you want to focus your travel.

    My most recent blog may clarify the process a bit! Good luck!

  • Thanks so much for the great information. My husband and I are looking forward to our very first trip to New England to see the fall foliage. I need to get our flights booked. If you were pressed to pick a week, which one would you suggest?

  • Heather

    Hi Jim,
    I have been a leaf spotter ambassador for foliage reports for Greenville, Maine Moosehead Lake Region for several years know. I have held off on reporting as we have been in a holding pattern over the last couple of weeks.

    This week, I have noticed that the birches are starting to take on that golden lime hugh and the maples are just starting to show light hues of red. The ferns have started to take on the what I call a spotted tiger look, which is a just another sign that fall is on the way. Corn is a about 2 weeks early and some early apple varieties are already in.

    The trees are looking good for a spectacular show this autumn. For 2012, the town of Greenville, Maine received the about.com readers choice award for the best place for fall foliage vacation. Lakes, Leaves and Moose too. Anyone wanting learn about a fall vacation in Greenville Maine

    Anyone looking for weekly or current conditions can contact us and we would be happy to share with them our insights and how to get the latest news for the Greenville Maine Moosehead Lake Region a trusted source for your fall color travel planning.

    Looking forward to more reports from you Jim, as you know those seeking fall colors often incorporate more than one place to take in the beauty in their fall foliage trips.


  • Great opening blog Jim. We can only hope that events like Hurricane Irene don’t upset the apple cart this fall.

  • Hi William,

    The shot was taken from the open ledge at the top of Mount Morgan in Holderness, NH. It’s a nice hike any time of year, but gorgeous on a fall afternoon!

    If that hike is a bit much, the two sunlit hills left of center before the lake are the Rattlesnakes…and a most excellent short hike with a great view of the lake as well.

    Here’s a bit more info, and a larger image:

  • Excellent question…I forgot to link to a source.

    This map is from the Climate Prediction Center, and simply orange and red is where it is predicted to be warmer than normal for the time period, and blue it is anticipated to be cooler than normal. The stronger the color, the greater the greater confidence they have in the forecast verifying.

    Here’s a link with more details…

  • William

    “View Of New England Foliage Over Squam Lake in 2011” is a great panorama. Where was it shot from? Is it an open elevation? And what time of day?

  • Welcome back, Jim! Can’t wait to start shooting our beautiful foliage!

  • Heather

    When Jim Salge posts his first forecast, we know that fall is around the corner.

  • A very interesting, informative read, as always! Looking forward to your weekly post. Your hard work is appreciated Jim…


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