Tip Sheets

Fall colors contend with changing climate as season gets underway

The arrival of fall in the Northeast typically means colder temperatures and — under the right conditions — spectacular fall foliage. The following Cornell University experts are available to weigh in on what to expect regarding fall foliage this season and what the impact of a changing climate may be on fall foliage for years to come.

Arthur DeGaetano

Professor of earth and atmospheric sciences

Arthur DeGaetano is director of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and an expert on climate data. He says that fall foliage displays will still be a part of fall in the Northeast, even with the impacts of climate change, but we might have to wait a week or two longer to enjoy the view.

Degaetano says:

The vibrant fall colors that characterize fall in the Northeast come about as the result of declining daylength and cooling fall temperatures. As the Earth continues to warm, the daylength trigger remains unaffected, but with warmer fall temperatures the signal the trees receive from cooler temperatures may be delayed.

While this may delay the traditional peak of leaf peeping season, it is more the year-to-year variation in weather that can make one year spectacular and another a dud. Summer droughts can cause trees to lose their leaves quickly or turn brown before changing colors, fall storms with rain and wind and cause tree to lose their leaves before they reach peak color.

There is some indication that climate change will result in increased stress due to high summer temperatures and more frequent droughts, and also stronger and wetter late summer and early fall storms, perhaps leading to more years being duds. However, such projections are very uncertain, meaning spectacular fall foliage displays will still be a part of fall in the Northeast. But we might have to wait a week or two longer to enjoy the views.”

Taryn Bauerle, Associate Professor, School of Integrative Plant Science Horticulture Section, expects this year's fall foliage to be average compared to past years. She says the warmer weather and relatively dry season we've had are not ideal for optimal colors.

Bauerle says:

It looks like we are just starting to see the first signs of fall. The forecast looks cooler with several sunnier days. I don’t think we will have as vibrant a fall as last year but as long as the rain and clouds stay at bay we should see some moderate color changes.”


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