Hot, wet summer could put a damper on leaf-peeping season
The Washington Post August 29, 2023
LUDLOW, Vt. — On a sunny Saturday with a tease of fall in the air, Jeff Wingate greeted guests trickling into Pop's Biscotti and Chocolates. Grateful Dead songs filled the sweets shop that the baker and his chocolatier wife opened nearly a year ago, just in time for the annual rush of leaf-peepers. After the devastating floods in early July, this fall's color-seekers will be more important than ever.
"The floods threw us for a little loop," said Wingate, whose store escaped serious damage. "But we are ready for foliage season."
This year's extreme weather weighs heavily on destinations that traditionally roll out the red, orange and yellow carpet for fall visitors. Across North America, wildfires and violent storms have destroyed trees and hobbled towns that anchor the festivities.
Less overt weather systems, such as heat waves and heavy rainfalls, can affect fall colors, peak times and season length. For visitors expecting a dazzling show, discovering bare trees and brown leaves can be as dispiriting as throwing down your towel on a sargassum-choked beach.
"A lot of destinations really lean on those natural resources as a pull factor for tourists," said Whitney Knollenberg, an associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University. "People certainly travel for that. And when it's good, it's great. And when it's bad, it's really bad."
Heat may lead to muted colors, short season
Fall foliage is essentially a wardrobe change. As the days shorten and the temperatures begin to drop, trees will ditch their summery greens (chlorophyll) for an autumnal palette (carotenoids and anthocyanin). In the weeks before their transformation, the trees prefer balmy, sunny days and crisp, cool nights.
Since 2011, Jim Salge, a former meteorologist at New Hampshire's Mount Washington Observatory, has been forecasting New England's foliage season for Yankee Magazine. In his report, released earlier in August, he addressed several concerns.
For one, the summer's heavy rains could have waterlogged the trees' roots and interfered with respiration, the process of converting sugars into energy. Under this duress, the leaves could change earlier than usual.
Meanwhile, the long stretches of warm temperatures could dilute the colors, turning the maples' fiery reds into a thin tomato soup color. An infestation of fungus could also tone down the hues.
"If it's a leaf fungus like anthracnose, we'll get a lot more early leaf crop and a little browning," Salge said. "We're already calling for a pastel year, and this will just make things even more muted. Still beautiful, but it won't be as bold."
While an abundance of rain could pull trees toward an early shift to fall colors, an extended summer could push back the timeline for deciduous trees such as elms, oaks and maples.
"Warmer fall temperatures during the day or at nighttime tend to delay the season and might mute the colors," said Robert Bardon, a professor of forestry in the College of Natural Resources at N.C. State. "But the biggest impact will probably be that it shortens the season."
Spring and summer months are equally important, when the trees soak up nutrients and sunlight that are less plentiful during wintertime. During the active growing period, the trees prefer moderate temperatures and precipitation.
Weather extremes such as rain dumps and broiling heat can result in a lackluster fall, according to Jingjing Liang, associate professor of quantitative forest ecology at Purdue University in Indiana.
"The general trend is that peak fall foliage color has seen a gradual decline over the years," said Liang, who used artificial intelligence to study how climate change impacts fall color across the eastern United States. "Some states, such as New Hampshire and Maryland, are becoming slightly better, but many others have been getting worse over the past 10 years."
Unexpected meteorological events can stress out trees as well. This summer, ash and smoke from the Canadian wildfires drifted down the East Coast, dusting trees from the northern border to Georgia. Howard Neufeld, a biology professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, said the particles can cover the leaves, reducing light interception and throwing a wrench in photosynthesis.
The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation monitors the state's forests by plane, searching for damage. Josh Halman, a forest health program manager with the agency, said that during these missions, they determined that smoke from the Quebec fires had not impacted the trees. "From what we've seen on those flights, the forests look standard," he said.
Foliage hunting always a gamble
In the lead-up to fall, the owners of the Laughing Heart Lodge in Hot Springs, N.C., start fielding calls about peak color. Only three of its 10 rooms face the Appalachian Mountain range, and the premium rooms can book up a year in advance, a risky move considering Mother Nature's fickle temperament.
"We get that question probably 10 times a day. 'Hey, when are the leaves going to be best?'" said Gabe Osiier, who owns the property with his wife, Maria. "We try to give you a suggestion, but we just don't know."
Regions steeped in fall color have to shoulder big expectations — and potentially heavy disappointments — when visitors plan an entire vacation around foliage. Knollenberg said many destinations have learned to diversify their offerings, an insurance policy against dashed dreams. In addition to promoting fall colors, a locale will tout attractions with a longer, more stable shelf life, such as heritage sites and cultural diversions.
"These are things that are more likely to be there and more likely to be consistent," Knollenberg said. "This will really help round out the experience for people."
For instance, the Red Lion Inn, which often links to a Berkshires foliage camera on its website, hosts live music in its downstairs club and recently unveiled an art exhibit with its Stockbridge, Mass., neighbor, the Norman Rockwell Museum.
"It requires us to be really creative and provide other reasons for people to come and not put all our eggs in one basket," said Sarah Eustis, president of Main Street Hospitality, which owns and operates the 250-year-old Red Lion Inn.
In New York's Hudson Valley, the family that founded Fishkill Farms has been engaged in a delicate dance with nature for more than a century. This year, owner Josh Morgenthau is anticipating a crop of ugly apples because of erratic weather last winter, when warmer temperatures interspersed with cold snaps confused the trees. "We're hoping that our customers who come to pick their own apples will be a little more forgiving," he said.
Morgenthau is also worried that if summer temperatures continue through September, visitors might not travel to the Hudson Valley for fall activities. Even so, he is sticking to the calendar of his ancestors. The farm will throw harvest festivals from mid-September through mid-October, a wide enough spread that surely one weekend will overlap with peak foliage.
Blue Ridge Hiking Company owner Lindsey Barr said the Asheville, N.C., business is permitted to operate on 2,000 miles of trails, access that increases the odds of finding such trophies as flaming-red sourwoods, shimmery gold poplars and mustard-yellow hickories. On hikes, the guides perform reconnaissance and share their findings with each other.
"We can keep an eye on how the color is progressing," said Barr, whose company has led hikers through 15 foliage seasons. "Our guides will check in and say, 'Hey, black balsam is at peak right now.' So we can pivot quickly."
Vermont is open for fall
The July floods crushed Vermont's summer tourist trade. Fall could be its season of renewal.
Damage caused by overflowing rivers and mudslides was patchy statewide. Some towns, such as Barre and Montpelier, the capital, were knocked down hard. Others, such as Killington and Burlington, quickly wrung themselves out.
Ludlow, which sits at the feet of Okemo Mountain, has made leaps of progress. Remnants of the Black River flood are minor: Public safety inspection certificates hang on the doors of businesses; yellow caution tape wraps around the parking lot of the Mill, a former woolen mill that houses a cafe, tap house and short-term rentals; and there's a "We Are Vermont Strong" sign at the base of the ski resort.
"Cleanup has been mostly complete," said Heather Pelham, commissioner of Vermont's Department of Tourism and Marketing. "Roads have been reopened. They're not all perfect ... And day by day, more folks are reopening."
Vermont has the highest concentration of maple trees in the country, and 78% of the state is covered in forest — one of many reasons the state draws upward of 2 million visitors each fall, according to Vermont's Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Mercifully, its prized resource survived the deluge.
"Trees were uprooted and are no longer standing, but those were largely in the river valleys. That's not really where people are going to see fall color," Halman said. "We're fortunate in Vermont to have mountains. We have lots of slopes. So even though we've gotten a lot of water, a lot of that is able to relatively quickly leave the system and not stress the trees out too much."
Last weekend at Okemo, chairlifts transported visitors to the top of the green mountain that will soon be awash in color. At Main + Mountain in town, happy hour guests sipped cocktails around fire pits, their backs to the Homestyle Restaurant, a sister business still closed after the floods.
"All the food is across the street, and drinking and sleeping are here," said Justin Hyjek, who owns and runs the bar, restaurant and boutique motel with his wife. "Now we have a chef over here, which worked out well when we got a flood."
On Vermont Route 103, a crowd gathered at Off the Rails for a pig roast fundraiser. A rock band played against the backdrop of a mudslide that had dislodged train tracks and nearly flattened the visitors center. The loosened earth had been secured with boulders, creating safe passage for travelers on a quest for fall colors.