People come from all over to see the hues of autumn in New England, with the season bringing in billions of dollars in tourism revenue for the region. But it’s been a particularly hot and dry summer, and these drought conditions could mean three things for the annual burst of color.
“Shorter. Earlier. Less exciting,” said forest ecologist Andy Finton with the Nature Conservancy.
Massachusetts — and most of the rest of New England — is experiencing drought conditions. Boston has had less than an inch of rain within the last month, and nearly 40 percent of Massachusetts was under extreme drought conditions last week, according to the US Drought Monitor.
“We’re feeling it as people, but the trees are feeling it, too,” Finton said.
Prolonged drought conditions affect the life cycle of plants, and many trees are under stress due to a lack of moisture — some are already shedding their browned and withered leaves, and dried-up vegetation is noticeable around Boston.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s becoming increasingly rare that we don’t have drought conditions in Massachusetts,” said David Melly, legislative director for the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
But not all hope is lost for this year’s colors, said foliage expert Jim Salge, who pens an annual forecast in Yankee Magazine. While droughts make the leaves turn earlier and quicker, “counterintuitively, it can create a really brief but bright and vibrant season,” Salge said.
The reason the colors are vibrant in the fall, particularly the reds, is because of anthocyanin compounds in the leaves, noted Mass Audubon conservation scientist Joshua Rapp, describing how the anthocyanin act as sunscreen for the plant. “So if it’s really sunny, the tree needs more anthocyanin to protect itself from the sun, which can help make the colors more vibrant in the fall,” he said.
Foliage appears brightest when trees have had sufficient precipitation during the spring and summer, followed by cool, crisp temperatures in the fall. The biggest factor that affects the timing and vibrancy of autumn colors is air temperatures in the two to three weeks before the leaves turn, so the trajectory of this year’s foliage forecast could still change, experts say.
“If we stay warm, the drought will have a much larger impact,” Salge said. “If we get a couple of cold snaps, that brief, bright foliage situation will kick-start ... We could get rain that lessens the effect of the drought or tropical systems that send salt spray to shore and really desiccate the leaves.”
Generally speaking, fall colors progress north to south — “down slope, down coast, and down south,” according to a Tauck Tours blog post. By Salge’s current estimate, colors will peak in the mountains of western Maine in late September and closer to the third week of October as you move down the coast. Salge said the Berkshires could turn as early as early-October, and one of the last places to turn in all of New England is the Public Garden and Esplanade in downtown Boston, where colors may not turn until the second week of November “depending on how fall temperatures play out,” Salge said.
“We usually tell people if you feel like you missed it, move south. If you feel like you’re too early, go north,” Salge said. “There’s a good six weeks or so where people can find peak foliage within a couple hours car ride.”
Last year, conversely, colors turned later in the season due to more rainfall and warm temperatures in September. The year-to-year variability is also something to note.
“Plants of any kind thrive under stable conditions,” Melly said. “We’re going to see droughts, flooding, heat waves — all these things disrupt the natural cycles that tend to be conditions under which the trees, and just as importantly our food system, thrive. The more disruption and instability we see, the harder it’s going to be to maintain ecological stability.”
Maple and oak trees are New England’s fall foliage superstars. Maples turn first, and oaks typically turn later and are more drought tolerant, experts said. But when trees are stressed by dry conditions, they are more susceptible to insects and diseases. Outbreaks of spongy moth (formerly known as gypsy moth), for example, are becoming common, threatening North America’s forests — particularly its oak population.
“This is the second year in a row where we’ve had fairly dry springs, and [spongy moth] populations are unfortunately taking advantage of that in a lot of areas,” Salge said.
“We’ve had thousands of acres of dead oaks in Massachusetts because of the drought and spongy moth” Finton said. “A combination of climate stress and other impacts like these nonnative insects that feast on trees are synergistically working with climate change to diminish fall foliage.”
So what could this mean for the future of the region’s multibillion-dollar fall tourism industry? Salge noted that the drought this year “isn’t nearly as bad” in areas that typically bring in the most tourists for foliage-specific activity.
“The White Mountains, Green Mountains, and northern and western Maine are in far less severe drought,” Salge said, adding that these areas have had nearly normal rainfall this summer, and drought conditions there stem more so from lighter-than-normal snowpack over the winter.
Beyond that, Salge doesn’t see the tourism industry taking any big hits in the near future.
“We’re pretty safe for a while,” Salge said. “We’re slowly starting to see foliage seasons trending a little later and all of that, but I don’t think there’s going to be an immediate change.”
But Mello noted that folks that rely on that industry “are going to have to adapt. And in particular, they’re going to have to account for increasing uncertainty.”
Tom Armstrong of Tauck Tours, a Connecticut-based company that offers fall foliage bus tours throughout New England, still anticipates a “very, very strong year.”
“We’re close to sold out,” said Armstrong, a marketing and communications manager who’s worked with Tauck for 18 years. He added that most fall foliage trips are booked about a year out.
“We’re a 97-year-old company, and whenever something happens that prevents people from traveling — whether it’s a pandemic or economic downturn or something in someone’s personal life — desire for travel doesn’t go away. It gets stronger, collectively, and we’re seeing that as an industry,” Armstrong said. “It’s always an amazing display — that’s my personal opinion. Fall foliage is a great thing. It’s a great show every year.”
Brittany Bowker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @brittbowker and on Instagram @brittbowker.