The drought that has parched Massachusetts is expected to drain color from the Bay State’s foliage season, although forestry officials say northern New England should still show the dazzling hues that attract millions of leaf-peepers every year.
That prediction — really, an educated guess, officials stressed —
“It will not be the most magnificent fall season we have ever seen,” said Felicia Andre, a Massachusetts state forester.
The foliage is expected to be more dramatic in the Berkshires than in much of Eastern and Central Massachusetts, Andre said. As a result, many people in Greater Boston who are waiting for a lingering display of dazzling color are likely to be disappointed.
“It will come earlier, and it won’t last as long,” said Marc Hansen, an arborist with Maltby & Co. in Stoughton.
Rainfall data help explain part of the problem. As of Thursday, 20.95 inches of rain had fallen in Boston this year, 33 percent less than normal, according to Alan Dunham of the National Weather Service.
“We’re really hurting,” Dunham said.
In most of northern New England, rainfall has not declined quite as much and is expected to have less of an effect on the foliage there.
None of Vermont was in severe or extreme drought as of Tuesday, according to the US Drought Monitor, a partnership between the federal government and the University of Nebraska. In Massachusetts, 89.95 percent of the state fell into those categories; in New Hampshire, 29 percent.
Kyle Lombard, program manager for forest health in New Hampshire, said that “generally speaking, the drought itself is not going to have any appreciable negative impact on the fall foliage. The state escaped any major disfoliation like Massachusetts had.”
Although the southeastern corner of New Hampshire has been hurt by drought, foliage in the White Mountains and north woods is expected to turn color as usual.
“All signs are pointing to a positive season,” said Kris Neilsen, spokeswoman for the state Division of Travel and Tourism Development.
Foliage is a key piece of the fall economy in New Hampshire, which last year drew 9 million visitors from September through November. They spent $1.34 billion during the season, Neilsen said.
In Vermont, the forest commissioner said he believes that state also is poised for a vibrant display.
A strong growing season, ample sunshine, and good moisture all point to “a spectacular year” in which peak foliage should be found somewhere until mid-October, said Michael Snyder, the commissioner.
But in Massachusetts, driving around a bend and seeing a tree awash in dazzling reds, yellows, and oranges might not be as easy. Blame it on the drought, but also on voracious gypsy moth caterpillars that gorged themselves on oak leaves and other vegetation in a binge not seen for decades.
In a damaging chain of events, the drought in Massachusetts stymied a fungus that helps check the gypsy moth population, Andre said. That led to an explosion of gypsy moths, which led to massive defoliation, leaving fewer leaves to turn color as shorter days and cooler temperatures arrive.
But even without gypsy moths, the dry weather starved trees of moisture and sent scorched and shriveled leaves falling to the ground earlier than usual.
“You’re not going to see color out of these trees,” Andre said.
Despite these setbacks, splashes of bright foliage are appearing out west, in places such as Berkshire, Franklin, and northern Worcester counties. The tree canopy there is denser, and the soil generally holds more moisture, which means greater protection and more resiliency, Andre said.
That means options are surfacing for foliage fans who have a full tank of gas and several hours to spare. Head north, it seems, or west.
“You’re still going to see it around,” Andre said. But maybe not as much.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.