My plans this autumn? A socially distanced visit to the best pumpkin patch in my area, lighting candles that smell like warm apple pie while eating warm apple pie, and chasing the best fall foliage New England has to offer. Unfortunately, the latter might not be as impressive as usual.
This year's fall foliage is predicted to be impacted by the abnormally dry weather conditions the country experienced this summer — which was the fourth hottest summer on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As the United States Drought Monitor Map shows, the majority of the Western states are currently experiencing abnormally dry to exceptional drought conditions. The Northeast follows with moderate to extreme drought conditions.
So far, nothing drastic has occurred to this year's leaf scene. In fact, "we are seeing exceptionally vibrant fall foliage in Vermont," Dr. William Keeton, a Forest Ecology and Forestry Professor at the University of Vermont told CNN. However, this level of foliage is premature and could indicate that the trees’ health is at risk.
"The colors this year are coming about two weeks earlier than normal," he continued. While this may sound like a plus, he believes this season will “probably go by fast and furiously,” with the leaves browning and dropping from the trees earlier and at a quicker pace than usual. He noted that the lack of moisture is currently adding physiological stress to plant life. Right now, 76% of Vermont is experiencing moderate drought conditions or worse, compared to 0% last fall.
Kaitlyn Weber, a data analyst for Climate Central, expanded on how early foliage can be a red flag: "In terms of fall foliage, drought can cause the leaves to change colors earlier but they may also die and fall off earlier.” Looking at this year's moisture deficit from a long term perspective, she added: "Prolonged and more extreme drought can cause physical damage to trees such as root loss, slowed growth, and makes it harder for trees to protect themselves against pests and disease." Although the leaves may look vivid and lively from afar, the trees producing them may be more susceptible to illness in the coming years.
As Keeton added, "the causes of fall foliage are complex and actually not entirely understood," noting that there's no clear cut answer as to what we can expect this year. He adds that is drought is just one of several factors that can impact the coloring of the trees each year.
Our advice? Cross your fingers for rainfall STAT. Also, don’t leave your leaf peeping activities to the end of the season. This fall foliage tracker points out the current hot spots across the United States where you can see the brightest trees of the bunch.
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