Ready for another New England fall foliage season? Our forecaster sees the potential for a big punch of color! Read on for the full New England fall foliage 2020 forecast.
By Jim Salge
Aug 20 2020
New England could see bright, abrupt and punctuated fall color this year.Photo Credit : Jim Salge
There’s nothing like fall in New England to make us want to connect to the natural world. From leaf peeping and fall fairs to apple picking and pumpkin carving, we love our time outside in autumn.
This fall will be different, of course, because of Covid-19. But the outdoors is among the safest places we can be, and many people have responded to the pandemic by getting more in touch with nature. Attendance has surged at parks, trails, preserves, and nature refuges throughout New England; road trips and day trips are also on the rise, even amid some travel restrictions for out-of-staters.
Clearly, leaf peeping for 2020 will not be canceled. And though many of the activities that often accompany it may have to be adjusted, there are still plenty of ways to safely enjoy the beautiful tapestry of colors and the crisp autumn weather. Plus, New England is blessed with average climate conditions that routinely bring about the world’s brightest fall colors, so even if there’s variability in the timing, intensity, duration, and hue, the foliage show rarely disappoints.
This far out, it’s impossible to pinpoint when peak color will arrive. But by looking at forest health, the year’s weather to date, and long-range climate models, we can gather clues about how the 2020 fall foliage season will play out.
And there’s a lot of reason for optimism about what lies ahead! First, though, let’s take a quick look back.
A Warm Winter: Since healthy trees and a full canopy are key to a stellar foliage season, the story of this year’s autumn leaves actually begins last winter, when the buds were formed and dormant. New England’s temperatures plunged in November and December, then trended very mild for most of the calendar season. Across most of the region, the winter ranked among the top 10 warmest on record.
A Snowy/Chilly/Wet Spring: By the first day of spring, the ground was mostly free of snow, crocuses were in bloom, and maple buds were swelling. The warmth had caused the maple sugaring season to start early, too, with sap running in January and petering out by mid-March.
But once spring got under way, it started to snow — even in places like eastern Massachusetts, which saw accumulation in late March … and in early April … and in late April. And just when they thought it couldn’t snow anymore, a few inches coated the ground on May 9.
New England also saw an abrupt switch to cooler weather, which effectively stalled the progress of the buds bursting and leaves emerging in much of the region. (Portland, Maine, didn’t get above 60 degrees in April for the first time in nearly 80 years!) And conditions were quite wet this spring, too: During a six-week stretch that began in early April, Concord, New Hampshire, logged precipitation on nearly half the days.
A Hot, Dry Summer: Then, like a switch, the rain stopped and the heat was on. For instance, Concord saw only a quarter-inch of rain from mid-May until the last three days of June. That’s when drenching thunderstorms arrived, saving the month on paper, but the water quickly ran off, leaving the region in a deep and lasting drought.
Thanks to a combination of scorching sun and lack of overnight cooling, this summer may go down as one of the hottest on record in many cities. Burlington, Vermont, didn’t drop below 60 degrees for 41 consecutive days this summer, shattering an obscure but telling record.
As I write this, the ground is dry; rain has been scarce. The forests of New England are resilient and have seen drought and heat before; still, they are beginning to show signs of stress. There are even a few areas, such as roadside cliffs, where trees with shallow roots are beginning to turn.
Bugs & Fungus: In terms of caterpillar outbreaks, this year has been a fairly light one for gypsy moths, tent caterpillars, and the invasive winter moths, which is good news for the foliage season. However, one notable species has been chewing through leaves in parts of northern New England — the caterpillar of the saddled prominent moth — and during a recent trip to the White Mountains I saw caterpillar frass (poop) falling from beech and maple forests like rain, but only in a localized area, fortunately.
Another factor in the foliage display is leaf fungal disease, like anthracnose, which can cause premature browning. But with the exception of far southern New England, the weather this year hasn’t been conducive for widespread fungus formation. Spring rainfall and moisture, especially on young leaves, can set the stage for fungus problems in summer and fall; however, this year’s cold temperatures delayed leaf-out until after the rains had largely stopped.
One last note: Gall wasps were incredibly abundant this year, as evidenced by the many odd round growths that popped up on trees and leaves. Luckily, they’ll have no effect on autumn color.
Acorns & Nuts: Since it takes a lot of energy to put out flowers and seeds, trees don’t produce heavy crops of acorns and nuts (aka mast) every year. When they do, though, it can make for a less robust leaf canopy. Luckily, 2020 is turning out to be an average mast year for most of New England’s trees. There are some acorns (especially from red oaks), beech nuts, and maple helicopters to be seen, but probably not enough to affect the foliage season.
Fall weather is critical to a vibrant foliage display, and this coming season will be dominated by two distinct influences: one being fairly predictable, and the other being a wild card.
First, we can expect a La Niña weather pattern this fall and winter, which tends to keep the storm track a bit farther north across the United States, with warmer conditions expected across New England.
Ideally this would be accompanied by more normal amounts of precipitation, since rainfall could go a long way toward setting up a stellar autumn … but not if it comes in the form of big storms. That’s why tropical storms are the second weather pattern to watch this fall.
This year has been the Atlantic Basin’s most active early season on record, and we’ve already had one tropical storm, Isaias, swing through New England with strong winds and brief but heavy rains. A more potent storm or a more direct hit could be a setback for the foliage season — we’ll just have to wait and see.
Putting all of this together, we’re seeing a fall foliage forecast that could go one of two ways. Both would be beautiful, but one would be better.
Recap: We had a strong start to the growing season, but then came an extremely dry, hot summer. In drier years, leaves tend to turn a bit early and their color is often short-lived. Fortunately, there’s still potential for a big color punch this year if the right weather scenario lines up.
Scenario 1: Since drought concentrates the sugars in leaves, our dry summer could actually lead to more intense foliage color, especially if it’s kick-started with an early cold spell. So the ideal scenario would be an active storm track from La Niña bringing cold fronts out of Canada early and often, leading to a vibrant display that makes up for in color what it might lack in longevity.
Scenario 2: The season is dominated by tropical weather activity, making for a longer-lasting display that, while perhaps less intense, will still delight leaf peepers with classic fall color. (As long as no big tropical storm decides to head our way, that is!)
At this point, there is no way to know which scenario will come out on top, but we’ll be watching closely for our next update in mid-September. After all, if 2020 has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected — and no matter which way things go, there’s still no better place to be than New England in the fall.
Planning to make the most of foliage season? We’re here to help you plan your visit and keep up with the changing colors. Check out our peak foliage map, plan a perfect fall road trip, and stay tuned for a weekly “where to see peak foliage now” post starting next month.
We can’t wait to share the season with you!