A few yellow and red trees are already dotting the landscape right now.
Photo Credit : Jim Salge
A few weeks ago we put out our first 2018 New England fall foliage forecast, and since then, signs of autumn have become significantly more abundant. Apple orchards are opening, pumpkins are ripening, and yellow and red leaves are beginning to dot the landscape.
These signs are welcome ones for many New Englanders, as they look forward to cooler weather, peak colors, and family traditions. For visitors, guides, photographers, and especially forecasters, though, these signs can bring nerve-racking suspense — and a lot of questions. Is this a normal foliage season? Is it what we expected? Is my trip well timed?
Our first forecast called for a vibrant foliage season — though likely a late one — based on the general good health of the forest, the conditions during the past spring and summer, and the fall weather outlook, including the El Nino pattern.
Overall, we are still very positive on this autumn. New England fall foliage rarely disappoints, and this year should be no exception. With the benefit of time and new data, we are now able to add more nuance to the original August outlook, and to refine what we expect for New England’s fall foliage in 2018.
FALL FOLIAGE FACTORS
Heat / Humidity
In a generally healthy forest, the brightest colors are brought out by an abundance of warm, sunny days and clear, cool nights. This causes the trees to produce the vibrant red pigments that join the yellows and oranges already in the leaves.
These conditions are normal in New England in autumn, which is one of the reasons our foliage is so consistently beautiful. This year, though, the region has really struggled to cool down, especially at night. And the long-range forecast is for continued above-normal temperatures.
This is partly why we expected that the leaves would turn late this year. And with more detail now in the long-range forecast, that expectation continues.
Drought / Rainfall
For the most part, rainfall has been adequate in New England this year, and the forests seem to have responded well. Although the U.S. Drought Monitor bumped parts of northern Vermont and coastal Maine up into level II drought last week, the rest of the region has received more than enough rainfall recently.
What wasn’t as clear in August was how the long-term drought of the previous few years would affect the resiliency of some trees this year. There is some lingering stress and some die-back from those earlier rainfall deficits, and the early color now dotting the landscape likely has its origins in this. Fortunately, the number of affected trees is limited — and since it’s mid-September now, a little color is not that unusual.
Pests / Mold
The range of spring defoliation from caterpillars was fairly limited this year, with less than 5 percent of the forests being significantly affected. If you do see a forest slope with signs of defoliation this fall, it will likely be isolated, and nearby slopes will still be ablaze with color during peak.
We also were happy to note that the spread of fungus was limited by relatively dry weather this spring. More recently, though, persistent humidity has brought out some fungus, spotting, and disease in the tree canopy in some areas. This is not unusual as fall gets under way and the leaves approach the end of their life cycle, and we aren’t too concerned, though it may affect the overall vibrancy in some areas.
X-Factor: The Tropics
As of this moment, there are three named tropical systems in the Atlantic Basin, and two more disturbances that meteorologists are watching. This, after the remnants of Tropical Storm Gordon brought some rainfall to New England last weekend, as well as some stunning sunrises and sunsets.
A direct hit from a tropical storm would certainly change our foliage outlook significantly, as it did in 2011 after Irene came through. But even passing effects from storms as they break down and move north can impact our autumn with prolonged heat, excess humidity, and persistent clouds — none of which bode well for fall color. So these latest storms certainly bear watching.
Now we wait, hopeful for the season ahead. Some cool weather — specifically, cool nights — would help confirm our forecast for a vibrant season, while significant tropical impacts would cause the biggest disruption. But such weather uncertainties and threats are with us every year, and yet almost without fail the forest transforms into a beautiful kaleidoscope of autumn color.
And fortunately, we don’t have long to wait now!
As always, be sure to visit NewEngland.com for our weekly 2018 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. On Instagram? Tag your photos with #MyNewEngland for a chance to be featured on our feed.