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:
- When will peak be this year?
- 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!
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.
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.
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.
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!