How Climate Change is Impacting Fall Colors in US Forests

The Impact of Climate Change on Fall Foliage Displays

Fall foliage season is a highly anticipated time of the year in states such as Maine, Georgia, and the Rocky Mountains. With an estimated US billion in tourism revenues to New England alone, it’s not surprising that many people wonder how climate change is affecting the annual fall foliage displays that attract so many tourists.

Climate Change’s Effect on Color Changes

One of the clearest effects of climate change on fall foliage is the fact that color changes are now occurring later in the season. However, it’s essential to understand that climate change is not the sole factor at play here. Human decisions about forest management are also influencing fall foliage displays, particularly in the Northeast.

Longer Growing Seasons and Carbon Dioxide Levels

As a forestry scientist, I have been studying the changes in tree physiology and growth patterns in response to climate change. In the Northeast, the growing seasons have been extended due to warmer temperatures and increased precipitation. This has led to trees experiencing more diameter growth, particularly in younger trees. Additionally, the rise in carbon dioxide levels, a result of climate change, has fueled more photosynthesis and growth in these trees.

Impact on Fall Colors and Forest Composition

The shift in the timing of fall colors emerging and the types of colors being produced is a direct result of the longer growing seasons. Additionally, the types of tree species present in a forest play a significant role in fall foliage displays. Forest composition in the eastern U.S. has shifted over time, with specific species such as red maple and black birch becoming more prevalent.

Climate – A Natural Factor

The types of trees present today in eastern forests are quite different from those seen in the early 20th century, primarily due to shifts in forest management practices. However, there is evidence to suggest that climate change is influencing the migration of some tree species to the north and west. For example, sugar maples, one of the prominent color-producing trees, are migrating northward into Canada.

Environmental Pressures on Forests

The warming climate has already caused a delay in peak colors in the East and additional factors such as intense storms, invasive insects, and leaf-spotting fungi further stress eastern forests. However, by adopting ecological forestry and focusing on ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat, foresters can help Eastern forests thrive in a changing climate and preserve their benefits – including stunning fall color displays – well into the future.

Foresters’ Essential Role

The work of foresters is critical for slowing climate change, revegetating open land, and increasing forest biodiversity. Through sustainable forest management, we can ensure that the beautiful and vital Eastern forests will continue to amaze us for years to come.

This article was written by Marc Abrams, Penn State.

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