Autumn is a season well known for its colorful foliage. Driven by the combination of sunlight, temperature, and precipitation, local displays vary from year to year. However, as the climate changes, so too will this familiar natural phenomenon.
As daylight hours decrease in the fall, there is less sunlight available to power photosynthesis – the chemical process that provides nutrients to trees by converting carbon dioxide and water into glucose, which is consumed by the tree and oxygen, which is released. This, in combination with falling temperatures, tells a tree to start preparing for winter.
To do this, a tree turns off its food producers by slowly corking the connection between leaf-stems and its branches. This blocks the movement of sugars from the leaves to the tree as well as the flow of water from the roots to the leaves. As a result, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll, the agent of photosynthesis and the reason for the green color of summer foliage. As the green fades, other chemicals that have been present in the leaves all along begin to show. These include xanthophyll and carotene, which produce yellow and orange leaves, respectively. Red to purplish colors are the result of anthocyanin, a chemical produced as a result any remaining sugars trapped in a leaf.
The change of leaf color happens every year, but the timing and duration of the displays are largely dependent on temperature and rainfall. Dry, sunny days and cool nights are the ideal recipe for beautiful fall foliage. Warmer and wetter conditions, on the other hand tend to delay the color change. However, extreme conditions, such as high heat, frost, excessive rain, or drought, can be a source of stress for trees and cause the colors to change early and the leaves to fall off faster.
As our climate changes, so too will displays of fall foliage. With warmer and wetter conditions forecast for the northeast, autumn colors are expected to peak later and disappear sooner. While there will still be variability from year to year, the fall foliage season in general is expected to get shorter. Furthermore, with the increasing probability of extreme weather events, such as storms with heavy rain, leaves could be swept from trees, effectively ending the season in a single day.
These changes will have more than an aesthetic affect. They are sure to have an impact on the multi-billion-dollar a year leaf-peeping ecotourism industry in several states.
Credit: Climate Central