Scenes of peak autumn color like this one in New Hampshire’s White Mountains drawn tourists from all over the world.
Photo Credit : Jim Salge
Preparing the annual New England fall foliage forecast every August always seems like an exercise that occurs a few weeks too early. School is still out, lakes and beaches are crowded and summer is very much in full swing. Yet there are subtle reminders of a coming colorful season all around us. Fields are filling with yellow goldenrod and purple asters, and the dawn chorus of songbirds has fallen silent as they prepare to migrate. Even a few early red maple leaves dot the roadside wetlands. These are all small signs, but they nonetheless foretell a magnificent season soon to come.
To New Englanders, autumn galvanizes a connection to both the natural beauty and deep regional traditions. Amid the magical landscape of the most stunning fall colors in the world, crowds gather at agricultural fairs and pumpkin festivals.
Families come together to go apple picking, pumpkin picking, and navigate corn mazes. Fresh apple cider donuts are eaten while drinking pumpkin-spiced everything. And leaf peeping takes center stage as people from the world descend on the region.
The display of autumn colors in New England rarely disappoints, and it generally follows a predictable pattern as the wave of peak color slides across the region. But every autumn season is a bit different, depending on the conditions preceding it. The season can start early or late; the tones can range from muted to vibrant, and from predominantly yellow to overwhelmingly red.
We know that the strongest displays of bright fall foliage colors are brought about by an old-fashioned New England winter, a seasonably mild spring with ample but not excessive rainfall, and a mild summer that neither scorches nor swamps. Thereafter — and most important — the dominance of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights in the weeks leading up to autumn will always makes the color pop.
So how do we think this autumn will stack up in New England? Well, there are a number of reasons we feel great about the outlook for this year!
LEAD UP TO THE 2017 FALL FOLIAGE FORECAST
To start to understand why this year’s fall foliage forecast looks so promising, we need to look back at the conditions over the past year that will impact the autumn colors. In 2016, we were firmly in the grasp of a historic drought, which certainly limited the duration of the foliage. Fortunately, as winter took hold, a roller-coaster season recharged the soil and the aquifers and stabilized the overall drought situation.
Snows came in early in December, but over the course of the winter, significant and stable snowpacks melted down to nothing three times during record heat waves. At the end of the second warmest January on record in Portland, Maine, for example, nearly 40 inches of snow fell on the city in seven days, the snowiest such period in the city’s history. Another blizzard hit mid-month, all to only melt again as the warmest daily high temperatures on record were rewritten on three consecutive days. Temperatures into the 70s were recorded in northern Vermont, and midwinter tornadoes occurred in Massachusetts. And with each melt, the prognosis for the forests this year improved.
The pendulum swung back again in March, stalling spring’s onset with average temperatures for the month lower than any of the previous three. Maple sugaring season didn’t start in northern New Hampshire until after the date it ended in 2016. The snowpack on Mount Mansfield again grew to 112 inches by April 9, the day my crocuses finally bloomed. Most important, though, the slow snowmelt extended mud season, and forced a late leaf-out in the trees.
Overall, without the winter of above-average snowfall amid some crazy temperature swings, we would not be as optimistic about this coming autumn in New England. Two-year rainfall deficits left the region about one to two feet below healthy averages at the end of winter—but the way the precipitation fell, and melted, then fell and melted again all but ended the drought.
Nonetheless, concerns about this year’s fall foliage forecast continued through spring, since the effects of drought in the forest often don’t emerge until the following year. In a few select areas, stressed trees—particularly in managed suburban landscapes—struggled with a full leaf-out, but in general the forest came through healthy. There was surprisingly limited frost damage after the warm February weather swelled the buds. And a super-late Mother’s Day snowstorm across the hills of northern New England melted quickly.
Since spring, the weather in New England has been fairly stable. There have been no long stretches of unbearable heat, nor have temperatures been below average. Rainfall has been adequate but not extreme. My lawn has stayed green throughout the summer, and an unbelievable array of woodland mushrooms have flourished in the periphery. And despite this, somehow the leaf funguses that can amass into outbreaks in times like these have seemingly stayed at bay.
2017 NEW ENGLAND FALL FOLIAGE FORECAST
Compiling all this data, the setup looks good overall for New England’s 2017 fall foliage forecast. The forest appears generally healthy and leaf development has been normal. The upshot: In New England, normal fall colors in New England are spectacular.
Looking forward, climatologists are projecting above-average temperatures with only average precipitation for this coming autumn. Warm dry weather can bring out bright colors if accompanied by abundant sunshine and cool nights, but a warm fall can also stall the onset of the fall colors a bit.
However, we will have to weigh that delay against the lingering stress that the forests are likely experiencing from last year’s drought. Stressed trees tend to change earlier than otherwise healthy trees do, and extremely stressed varieties may in fact turn soon. The amount of stress in the forests, combined with the projected temperatures for this fall, may suggest a timeline very close to average.
The setup and forecast suggest the season could end up being particularly vibrant as well. Last year, the forests were dominated by many bright red tones, and we could be looking at a similar season—but we will need similarly supportive autumn conditions to promote those pigments.
Lastly, we would be remiss not to mention a few localized outbreaks of caterpillars that have defoliated some specific areas around New England. Gypsy moths had a field day in parts of central Massachusetts. There were forest tent caterpillars on isolated ridges in Vermont, browntail moths in a few Maine pockets, winter moths south and east of Boston. The trees sent out new leaves, but rarely are such areas spectacular. But because New England is a relatively small area with a surprisingly large range of climate zones and terrain, if you find a certain area has been so affected, better options should be only a short drive away.
As we get closer to autumn, be sure to visit NewEnglandFoliage.com for weekly fall foliage forecasts and reports, as well as our live peak foliage map and everything else you need to plan your foliage trip in the region.
We can’t wait to share this most beautiful season with you!