Climate Change Is Muting Fall Colors, But It’s Just the Latest Way That Humans Have Altered US Forests

Yves here. I hate to seem cynical, but the gnashing of teeth about the color season seems a smidge overdone. The big shift is that the color change is arriving regularly arriving late, which means “too late” for some tourist businesses. In the old days in Maine, color season started in mid September and lasted though what was then called Columbus Day. Last year and this year, I left Maine at about the same time, just before the 20th of September. Last year, a very fine color season was getting a good head of steam; one part of an inland drive had a simply glorious 5 minutes of vivid and varied fall plumage.

If the leaf change happens later and is less pretty, the assumption is that the retired tourist types will go elsewhere (although the Northeast after Labor Day is quieter and cheaper, and the woods are still pretty even when the colors are understated).

This year, the summer was apparently pretty wet (bad for color) and it remained pretty warm, so even as I was leaving, the leaves had barely started to turn.

This article seems blind to the irony that if duller colors mean fewer day tripper/weekend visitors, that’s bad for local incomes but good for the planet…assuming a resulting reduction in driving. But it also points out that climate change is leading to fiercer storms that can thin forests, and even in the very limited area that I visit regularly, I’ve seen it. A very bad Nor’easter took out some of the famed Bowdoin Pines (a stand of aboriginal forest, impressively tall trees) as well as uprooted some beautiful old trees on the property of a house we’d been renting for years, making the view to the ocean seem barren. This year, I was bad and drove to the property again, and the long driveway in had a lot of trees felled (but not cut) on both sides. My passenger speculated they were victims of lightening strike and fire.

The South can also have very nice color, but no one treks here to find it. But I wonder about the assumption regarding stability of summer weather. We went from years of droughts, to the degree that many were calling arborists in to advise how to preserve their trees, to several years of very rainy summers and early fall (this year even more so). So I’m not expecting leaf spectacles.

By Marc Abrams, Professor of Forest Ecology and Physiology, Penn State. Originally published at The Conversation

Fall foliage season is a calendar highlight in states from Maine south to Georgia and west to the Rocky Mountains. It’s especially important in the Northeast, where fall colors attract an estimated US$8 billion in tourism revenues to New England every year.

As a forestry scientist, I’m often asked how climate change is affecting fall foliage displays. What’s clearest so far is that color changes are occurring later in the season. And the persistence of very warm, wet weather in 2021 is reducing color displays in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But climate change isn’t the only factor at work, and in some areas, human decisions about forest management are the biggest influences.

Longer Growing Seasons

Climate change is clearly making the Northeast warmer and wetter. Since 1980, average temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 0.66 degrees Fahrenheit (0.37 Celsius), and average annual precipitation has increased by 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) – about 8%. This increase in precipitation fuels tree growth and tends to offset stress on the trees from rising temperatures. In the West, which is becoming both warmer and drier, climate change is having greater physiological effects on trees.

My research in tree physiology and dendrochronology – dating and interpreting past events based on trees’ growth rings – shows that in general, trees in the eastern U.S. have fared quite well in a changing climate. That’s not surprising given the subtle variations in climate across much of the eastern U.S. Temperature often limits trees’ growth in cool and cold regions, so the trees usually benefit from slight warming.

In addition, carbon dioxide – the dominant greenhouse gas warming Earth’s climate – is also the molecule that fuels photosynthesis in plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, plants carry out more photosynthesis and grow more.

More carbon dioxide is not automatically good for the planet – an idea often referred to as “global greening.” There are natural limits to how much photosynthesis plants can carry out. Plants need water and nutrients to grow, and supplies of these inputs are limited. And as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants’ ability to use it decreases – an effect known as carbon dioxide saturation.

For now, however, climate change has extended the growing season for trees in the Northeast by about 10-14 days. In my tree ring research, we routinely see trees putting on much more diameter growth now than in the past.

This effect is particularly evident in young trees, but we see it in old trees as well. That’s remarkable because old trees’ growth should be slowing down, not speeding up. Scientists in western states have even noted this acceleration in bristlecone pines that are over 4,000 years old – the oldest trees in the world.

Fall colors emerge when the growing season ends and trees stop photosynthesizing. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves, which absorbs energy from sunlight. This allows carotenoid (orange) and xanthophyll (yellow) pigments in the leaves to emerge. The leaves also produce a third pigment, anthocyanin, which creates red colors. A longer growing season may mean that fall colors emerge later – and it can also make those colors duller.

A Changing Mix of Trees

Climate isn’t the only thing that affects fall colors. The types of tree species in a forest are an even bigger factor, and forest composition in the eastern U.S. has changed dramatically over the past century.

Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.

This shift began in the 1930s, when federal agencies adopted policies that called for suppressing all wildfires quickly rather than letting some burn. At that time, much of the eastern U.S. was dominated by fire-adapted oak, pine and hickory. Without fires recurring once or twice a decade, these species fail to regenerate and ultimately decline, allowing more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive trees like red maple to invade.

There is evidence that some tree species in the eastern U.S. are migrating to the north and west because of warming, increasing precipitation and fire suppression. This trend could affect fall colors as regions gain or lose particular species. In particular, studies indicate that the range of sugar maples – one of the best color-producing trees – is shifting northward into Canada.

Forests Under Pressure

So far it’s clear that warming has caused a delay in peak colors for much of the East, ranging from a few days in Pennsylvania to as much as two weeks in New England. It’s not yet known whether this delay is making fall colors less intense or shorter-lasting.

But I’ve observed over the past 35 years that when very warm and wet weather extends into mid- and late October, leaves typically go from green to either dull colors or directly to brown, particularly if there is a sudden frost. This year there are few intense red leaves, which suggests that warmth has interfered with anthocyanin production. Some classic red producers, such as red maple and scarlet oak, are producing yellow leaves.

Other factors could also stress eastern forests. Climate scientists project that global warming will make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense and destructive, with higher rainfall rates. These storms could knock down trees, blow leaves off those left standing and reduce fall coloration.

Scientists also expect climate change to expand the ranges of insects that prey on trees, such as the emerald ash borer. And this year’s very wet fall has also increased problems with leaf-spotting fungi, which are hitting sugar maples particularly hard.

Forests shade the earth and absorb carbon dioxide. I am proud to see an increasing number of foresters getting involved in ecological forestry, an approach that focuses on ecosystem services that forests provide, such as storing carbon, filtering water and sheltering wildlife.

Foresters can help to slow climate change by revegetating open land, increasing forests’ biodiversity and using highly adaptable tree species that are long-lived, produce many seeds and migrate over time. Shaping eastern forests to thrive in a changing climate can help preserve their benefits – including fall color displays – well into the future.

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  1. cocomaan

    Interesting article. The fact that trees are getting another two weeks of growing season is fascinating and lines up with my observations here in PA.

    However, we have also seen more crazy weather in the spring. 2020 had a snow in May, which hasn’t happened in a long time. So the growing season extends on the fall side but spring seems to be slow.

    This year was one of the best growing seasons in memory for me.

    Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.

    At least here in PA, in the early 20th century, most of the state was in early successional regrowth. The entire state had been logged by the Teddy Roosevelt era. You see a lot of cherry trees out in Western PA, for example, because of choices about how we replanted forests.

    We also lost the chestnut awhile ago and the ash only recently, both of which were huge parts of eastern forests.

    For what it’s worth, our mast year has been huge for oaks. They took last year off but made up for it this year.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        We might have had one night last week with frost here in Maine, but that’s it. Gone are the days when we used to cover the tomato plants at night in Sep/Oct to prevent frost damage. I haven’t even had to think about doing that for years now.

    1. MT_Wild

      Don’t forget the disappearing hemlocks, which were crucial for shading small streams across the state.

      Out west it’s easy to see dead trees from beetle kill and realize something is wrong. Especially so when its on fire. It’s a lot harder to notice the change in species composition and dominance that’s happening in eastern forests. But huge impact ecologically and economically.

      There’s a couple small old growth (200+ years) hardwood forest remnants outside of Pittsburgh I visited during my college years, and walking through them felt like you were on some other planet compared to the more recent 50-80 year old forests across SW PA. Even if those forests go on for another couple hundred years, they will not be the same.

  2. Jackiebass63

    Wher I live all of the Ash trees have died. Now something is attacking the Maples and they are dying . Many apple trees are suffering the same fate. Over a relatively short time the composition of our forest will change due to climate change. I live in upstate Ny on the PA border. So far in October we are 7” of rain more than normal. Winters are warmer with more rain and freezing rain than snow.

  3. Wukchumni

    Drove up to Mineral King Valley in rapt anticipation of the fall colors on Friday and it was quite the dud with muted yellow predominating among the quaking aspens & cottonwoods.

    Normally each aspen would look like a newly lit match or even brick red this time of year, but it wasn’t happening.

    Was it on account of the drought and/or 6 weeks of wildfire smoke?

    1. The Rev Kev

      Thanks for those links. It makes it look like a whole different world back then that is sadly no more.

  4. redleg

    I have to use historical air photos for work. One very interesting thing that becomes surprisingly evident when using 1930-60 vintage air photos of rural areas in MN is how many more trees are present today than in 1930-60. There was a lot more treeless prairie in central and southern MN back then that is now forested.

    Here’s the library to see for yourselves, but be warned that this is a major time sink.

  5. juliania

    Last year swallows stayed longer and some flocks heading south got caught in rapid freezing weather. But this year they seemed to remember what had happened and gathered earlier than usual. The cranes however have only just begun to head south overhead, and also the hummingbirds stayed longer (this is high mountain southwest.) But long as they did stay, the salvias which are a main source of nectar refused to bloom because of the heat, and I have had the devil of a time trying to grow my greens – nothing doing as they germinate in cooler weather and we haven’t had it till now. Still I do urge folk to plant them now –they can go on any windowsill for the winter, even if that window ices over inside. Plants in the house are my solution for clean air and humdity wintertime in this dry atmosphere. I even bring in tomato plants and have one chile plant that has kept me in the narrow ones for four years now. They will fruit (slowly) till after Christmas with our bright sun here. After that they seem to know the game’s up.

    Another climate affected plant has been morning glories. Those can be pests; not this year. They barely had the right conditions to pop up near summer’s close. Those, salvia, and chamisa are insect feeders here – in the past the monarchs would take in nutrition from the gold on their way south from the latter, which are lovely to see now. But because they wait for fall conditions their consumers have already left the scene, though monarchs are seldom seen here now in any case. But as usual my juncos arrived yesterday – they come when their mountain habitat starts to feel uncomfortable. My garden is getting its first frosts, which does happen this time of year. The only problem was that the heat stayed right through September.


    Where my mom lives, it used to be a set pattern: October is when the leaves change and peak foliage occurs, which means October is tourist season, and by the first week of November the trees are barren. Nowadays, though, peak foliage doesn’t hit until the first week of November. Being where she is, though, not too many locals are willing to pull their heads out of the sand and acknowledge why peak foliage keeps happening later and later.

  7. lordkoos

    Here the leaves have just begun to drop, and the colors the last week or so have been brilliant. But it’s all happening later than it once did as our winters become shorter and more mild (which increases my fears of summer heat and wildfires). Last week temps were reaching 60 in daytime highs, once upon a time that would have been rare for mid-October. We’ve been getting a lot of rain this week, but in the old days it would have been snow.

  8. drumlin woodchuckles

    As the warming temperatures move north, don’t the lyme disease ticks move north with it?

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