Climate change could shift New England’s fall foliage

Fall foliage at a pond in New England

Climate change joins a complicated network of factors that influence when and where leaves change color every autumn. 

Jeff Folger/Vista Photography  (CC BY-ND 2.0)

From frost to drought, a lot of factors influence when leaves go from green to the palette of red, orange and yellow synonymous with autumn in New England. Add climate change to the list, researchers report October 19 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

Using satellite images and weather data, a team at the University of Connecticut measured the impact of frost, heat, wetness, drought, precipitation, elevation and sunlight exposure on the timing of leaf color change and loss. They zeroed in on two forested regions of New England from 2001 to 2012 and crunched those calculations into two climate change scenarios for future decades (2041 to 2050 and 2090 to 2099). Moderate temperature increases and drought will delay fall foliage in northern areas, while southern coastal forests will start to lose leaves earlier due to higher heat stress, summer rainfall and autumn frost. 

Beyond complicating tourists’ plans, changes in peak foliage dates could have implications for nutrient cycles in those forests, the researchers write. 

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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