As climate change hits fall foliage season, money won’t grow on trees forever

How climate change is withering fall foliage and the tourism that relies on it

By Justin Sharon

(Justin Sharon is a longtime freelance writer. After working at Merrill Lynch for many years, he transitioned to financial journalism. Among other subjects, he also authors a monthly column about British soccer.)

NEW YORK (Callaway Climate Insights) — October is prime peak leaf-peeping season in several parts of the United States, an event as evocative of autumn as pumpkin patches and apple picking. While locations ranging from the Great Smoky Mountains in the Southeast to Colorado’s Breckenridge all have their unique charms and for one region especially, fall foliage is a rite of passage. 

In New England, the vibrant golds, reds, and oranges brought forth by mighty oaks, maples, and hickories as they change hue represent the color of money. For area economies, the impact is no mere tree-hugging exercise; it’s estimated that those leaves rake in more than $3 billion in sightseeing-related tourist revenue for the six states. 

Even amid the pandemic’s lingering impact, New Hampshire is anticipating some 3.2 million visitors this fall, a tally it tops only in summer. In Vermont — home to Stowe, the scenic town that bills itself as “Fall’s Color Capital” — foliage season accounts for approximately 10% of all annual tourist revenue. And in the Nutmeg State, Gov. Ned Lamont himself spearheaded a $1.4 million “Full Color Connecticut” advertising blitz recently.  

Polly’s Pancake Parlor, a New Hampshire institution for more than eight decades, is testament to the enduring significance of fall foliage spending on local businesses. The restaurant welcomed almost 1,000 paying customers on the Sunday of the Columbus Day holiday weekend in 2019, a total swelled by legions of lucrative visiting leaf-peepers. On the corresponding weekend this year, it suspended telephone booking entirely and operated on a strictly first come, first served basis for what is invariably its single busiest period of the entire year. 

Such is the importance of fall foliage visitors to the family-owned establishment, its website has collated an extraordinarily detailed Fall Leaf Color Chart, with data going back to 1975. The results indicate that, on average, peak fall foliage season is being delayed by about a day a decade. 

While myriad factors may be at work, a growing consensus appears to suggest that climate change is playing a role in fall foliage increasingly being marked by shortened seasons and more muted colors. Much of New England experienced a debilitating drought in 2021, swiftly followed by an unusually wet summer. Such a combination is spectacularly ill suited to tree vitality. 

As we all learned in biology class, a process known as photosynthesis produces the pigment chlorophyll that gives tree leaves their green appearance. In the autumn, leaves stop photosynthesizing and their chlorophyll breaks down, revealing rich yellow and orange colors. A key cue that trees rely on to begin this process is temperature, with the onset of their transformation heralded by the arrival of cooler weather. In an era of warming temperatures, trees receive confusing mixed signals. Invasive species, diseases, and pests are also all more prevalent as the mercury rises, subjecting trees to additional stress.

Environmental scientist Stephanie Spera, an assistant professor of physical geography at the University of Richmond, is studying the impact of climate change on fall foliage in Maine’s Acadia National Park. In addition to analyzing satellite data, she is enlisting scores of ‘citizen scientists’ who are encouraged to send in their fall photos taken in the park from the Eisenhower Administration to the age of Instagram. 

Spera, a proud native New Englander, tells Callaway Climate Insights that “Granite runs through my veins.” As such, this project is personal for her. The goal of her research is to understand how changes in temperature and precipitation have affected the timing and duration of fall foliage in Acadia, and how these fluctuations have impacted the number of park visitors. As she points out, “Such changes have important implications for the local economies of towns on and around Mount Desert Island.”

Utilizing archival and photographic sources, a clear pattern can be deciphered at this picturesque campground over time. Spera notes that “In the 1950s, peak fall foliage in the area was taking place around October 4-5, whereas it doesn’t now occur until Oct. 12-13. Severe droughts and extreme precipitation events — both of which are becoming more prevalent in the Northeast — are contributory factors. In analyzing the climate data, nighttime temperatures in particular are getting warmer, and the number of days with downpours are also increasing.” 

On Wall Street, there’s an old expression that “The trend is your friend.” Alas, long-term fall foliage trends in the many New England towns that depend on autumn tourist dollars aren’t altogether auspicious. How long all those brilliant purples and browns can reliably continue to pull in the green is increasingly up for debate.