Planning a New England autumn adventure? Our forecaster predicts long-lasting color with an emphasis on softer oranges and yellows. Read on for the full New England fall foliage 2019 forecast.
By Jim Salge
Aug 26 2019
New England’s fall foliage sets the backdrop for a full cultural experience.Photo Credit : Jim Salge
Since we’ve just recently emerged from the hottest single month in our region’s long weather history, New England fall foliage seems a world away. The woods are a lush deep green and filled with a bounty of berries (and bugs). But soon enough, signs of autumn will be all around us.
Starting in late September, the forests in the beautiful mountains of northern New England will start donning their coats of autumn color. Then, over several weeks, a wave of peak color will spread across the entire region, usually reaching the southern coastlines by early November.
Visitors from all over the world travel to New England each year to experience the show and share in the simplest of time-honored traditions: admiring the fall leaves. The beautiful landscape also serves as a backdrop to a one-of-a-kind cultural experience, as fairs, pumpkin festivals, cider doughnut spots, and road trips encourage families to get outside and communities to come together.
It’s fortunate that our average climate conditions produce spectacular fall colors, and while there can be significant variability in the timing, intensity, duration, and hue, the show rarely disappoints. To get an idea of how the 2019 season might take shape, we’ll look into the recent past to gauge the health of the leaves that now make up the forest canopy, as well as examine long-range weather forecasts to understand how the foliage will change this fall.
The 2018 New England fall foliage display arrived late, and many leaves were still on the trees when early snows arrived. Wildcat Resort in the White Mountains opened in October for its earliest skiing ever, and the Crown of Maine saw its snowpack set in for good by early November. In southern New England, oak leaves fell on deep snow from a nor’easter the week of Thanksgiving. Early storms like these can bring damage to the forests, but overall the trees seemed to have weathered them well.
The remainder of winter was fairly consistent in its stormtrack, with a distinct line forming across New England between epic winter and a sloppy, icy mess. Northern zones never experienced a thaw all season, and a deep, record-setting snowpack blanketed the forests. Caribou, Maine, had snow on the ground for 163 straight days, a week longer than any other winter in recorded history. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, snow lingered on trails into May, and trees on hillsides didn’t start budding out until June, significantly later than historical averages.
Farther south, though, snowpack was abnormally thin, as storms that began as snow ended as rain. (Here in southern New Hampshire, my kids were actually able to ice skate on our lawn on five different weekends.) As very cold air moved in between storms, the uninsulated ground froze deeply — but it thawed quickly in the spring. When a last cold snap moved through in March, trees and shrubs were particularly vulnerable. Suburban landscapes were hit the hardest, with damage ranging from loss of branches to dormancy and even death in young oaks and maples and, notably, old rhododendrons.
Spring was consistently wet and cool across New England. Portland, Maine, saw rainfall on 25 days between April 1 and May 15, the most ever during that period. The cool, cloudy weather delayed leaf-out in southern New England even as lingering snowpack was doing the same in northern New England.
Summer has been hot and humid, with adequate rainfall from frequent thunderstorms. July set records as the hottest single month ever in many locations across the region. However, this wasn’t a dry heat, the kind that significantly affects the forests; instead, it was combined with consistent humidity, which limited cooling overnight and pushed average daily temperatures over the record mark. It might have made for uncomfortable sleeping, but at least it means drought won’t be a factor in this year’s fall foliage outlook.
A year ago at this time, we were in the midst of an unprecedented event known as Squirrelpocalypse, which saw squirrels by the millions meeting their demise on the roadside. The reason? All the tree species in the forest that normally would have produced supplies of nuts and seeds had failed, which meant huge numbers of wildlife were on the move seeking food.
This year is an entirely different story, as oaks, beeches, hickory, and, most impressive, maple are having “mast years,” which means the trees are producing a bumper crop of nuts and seeds. (In fact, the maple helicopters were so heavy this spring that the trees appeared red with seeds well past leaf-out.) But with much of the trees’ energy going toward producing these seeds, the leaf canopy seems a bit thin heading into fall.
Side note for wildlife lovers: The populations of many predator and scavenger species are running high thanks to Squirrelpocalypse, which could make this autumn a great time for spotting owls, ravens, foxes, and coyotes.
This year’s wet spring was a bit of a double-edged sword for New England forests, since it was great for the growth of all kinds of fungi — some good for fall foliage prospects, some not.
For instance, a fungus called Entomophaga maimaiga has helped keep the leaf-feeding gypsy moth caterpillar in check this year. However, the fungi that cause anthracnose, an infection that causes leaves to brown prematurely, also are primed by wet springs, and they will have a higher-than-average effect this year. (A wet fall could be particularly bad in this context, as outbreaks tend to spread in wet, cool weather.)
Notably, anthracnose has been seen most often in combination with the first widespread outbreak of the oak shothole leafminer, a fly that turns oak leaves into Swiss cheese.
On the good news front, biological control of the invasive winter moth caterpillar has become more effective, and overall the forests have seen some recovery in central New England.
Long-range forecasts are based on a number of large-scale ocean and atmospheric patterns that set up in predictable ways. The most well known of these is El Niño/La Niña, which is currently moving into a neutral state. Neutral periods have links to increased tropical activity across the Atlantic seaboard, though it’s impossible to say if any of these storms will impact New England.
Overall forecasts for the region are calling for warmer-than-normal fall temperatures and average amounts of rainfall. Cold fronts will become stronger as the season progresses, and humidity will cut back significantly, allowing temperatures to drop at night and kick-start the colors.
New England’s fall foliage rarely disappoints, but some years feature bolder and longer-lasting colors than others. In general, you want a seasonably mild and reasonably wet spring, a summer with adequate rainfall and, most important, plenty of warm, sunny days and clear, cool nights in the weeks leading up to autumn.
Despite a slightly cooler-than-normal spring, we are generally on track for a typical year. The canopy trees, especially maples, are a bit thin, and there is some fungus and premature browning amid the landscape. But insect damage has been lower than average, and we’ve avoided the stresses of a drought.
Putting this all together, we predict the colors will come in a bit later than the historical average, but they will be longer-lasting ones, given the generally healthy leaves. We expect to see more of the softer oranges and yellows than the bold reds — though in a year like this, with a thinner forest canopy, red leaves tend to pop even more than usual.
One slight exception to this is the wetland maple, which should have a banner year this year. Already (!) many inland marshes are beginning to turn, and soon they should be bright enough for any leaf peepers looking to get a jump on the big show.
At NewEngland.com, we offer many tools to help you plan your visit to our region and to keep up with the pace of the changing leaves. We have a peak foliage prediction map, a map of live foliage updates, a foliage app, and frequent reports tracking the season in real time.
We can’t wait to share another New England fall foliage season with you!
This post was first published on August 15, 2019.