North Carolina’s fall colors are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the United States. However, climate change is making fall colors more variable.

According to Howard Neufeld, a professor of biology at Appalachian State University, climate change is causing warmer temperatures in the fall, which delays the arrival of the fall colors and makes them look darker.

Fall color responds to two things: shorter daylight hours and lower fall temperatures,” Neufeld said. Some trees respond more to the length of daylight, while others respond more to temperature.

Warmer weather in the fall ‘induces’ some trees to produce chlorophyll longer, keeping them green later in the fall and making them vulnerable to sudden frosts.

Other trees that are more dependent on changes in sunlight may fall early in the fall, leaving bare skeletons when other trees are at their best color.

The peak season is lengthening due to the warming climate, which kind of washes out the color,” Neufeld said.

In some of the most vibrant foliage hotspots in the U.S., including western North Carolina, the color is already appearing later.

Climate change affects fall colors in North Carolina

According to a 2019 study, red maple leaf color is more than a month behind the 20th century.

Warmer weather throughout the year affects the timing of maple leaf changes, which makes Neufeld’s job of predicting the peak maple season each year more difficult.

Neufeld said, “I’m a little anxious right now. I got an email in May from a bride who wanted to know when the peak of the fall season was, and I was like ‘Don’t push this on me!'” .

In the previous ten years of his forecast, peak color has almost always occurred between October 20th and 25th.

Warm temperatures in early October delayed the peak by five to 10 days in many areas this year.

It’s been like that everywhere from 2017 to now,” Neufeld said. As a result, the timing is more variable than in previous years, which may be due to early climate change.

Climate-related delays in fall color can disrupt the growth and dormancy cycles of trees, which affects how they survive, how they grow, and whether they store carbon at the same rate.

In addition to temperature, other climate factors, including pollution, rainfall (or lack thereof) and pests can also have an impact.

“Some of these factors can also make fall colors less vibrant,” Neufeld said.

Oranges and yellows are present almost year-round, but when trees stop producing green chlorophyll, the colors underneath show up.

In the fall, some trees produce a new red pigment called anthocyanin, which gives roses and strawberries their deep red color.

Neufeld says, “If it’s warm, they burn sugar to breathe, so they don’t produce as much anthocyanin, and you get a duller red color.”

As it turns out, studying fall colors has its own spectrum.

Neufeld says, “Like anything in science, it’s not black and white, it’s gray, and it’s a lot more complicated than we first thought.

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