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Leaf peepers prepare for a mixed bag this fall. Here's where to go

  Leaves begin to change colors in New York's Adirondack Mountains.
Jim Levulis
Leaves begin to change colors in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

Earlier this week we heard about what to expect for Vermont’s fall foliage season and now we’re going to shift to New York.

Taryn Bauerle, an associate professor of plant science at Cornell University in Ithaca, spoke with WAMC’s Jim Levulis.

Bauerle: First, I just want to preface by saying it is always difficult to forecast. So I try my best, but there's so many factors that come into play that it's me against Mother Nature, in many ways. So I think though, we are set up for a fairly nice fall foliage color change. I think compared to other years, we might be a little on the early side, but depending where you are in New York. So there's a few areas of New York that have been experiencing some more water limitation and mild drought events, particularly Western New York, and I know parts of the city and Long Island. So those areas might be a little on the earlier side. The Adirondacks, though did receive pretty good rainfall this year. So I think they're probably on track for relatively normal timing.

Levulis: And you mentioned those drought conditions in portions of the state, there have been some rather heavy rain events in recent weeks. Does that help at all? Or is the deficit enough already there and sort of the forecast is set and the trees and the leaves are already on that path?

Bauerle: Yeah, so a little of both, I would say. So definitely it does help. And really, the main predictor or kind of environment that we're interested in is really the time right before fall sort of hits. So what kind of condition are the trees in at that state. And so it really kind of depends, you know, how extreme that drought might or might not be, and if that those rain events can alleviate that particular stress. I can't speak for everywhere locally here, though around Ithaca, we were working out in the forest during some of those really heavy rainfalls, and we did notice that it wasn't really enough to replenish the soil moisture, there were still a lot of very dry locations in the soil. So I don't think we've quite gotten enough to really sort of recharge that soil.

Levulis: And what about weather conditions during the fall foliage season? Does that impact the colors, the health of the trees? I'm thinking something similar to like, right, warm days and cool nights is great for sap production, right?

Bauerle: That's right. Yeah so it does very much have an effect. And I don't know, I'm looking out the window of my office right now. And it's very cloudy and raining. That's definitely not a type of climate that you're looking for, for really optimizing the foliage. So I would say kind of bright, sunny days. Not super warm, but a lot of sunshine and nice, cooler nights really help to optimize the fall foliage color. So yes, right around the timing of when the leaves are changing is a very critical time as well.

Levulis: Have there been any noticeable impacts over recent years, say the past decade of any invasive species that have been harming the trees that do produce that strong, beautiful fall foliage for the Northeast?

Bauerle: Yeah, so I usually think of are sort of my go to tree when I'm thinking about all foliage tend to be more of the maples, which they seem to be doing pretty well. As you're probably aware, we have had some invasive species probably though, not really, for some of the trees that we really think of as the kind of our go to popping color changing trees. So for example, I'm thinking of ash trees as one or hemlocks, which of course, aren't changing colors, but do provide a very nice contrast at least in terms of their very deep greens that they maintain within our forests as well.

Levulis: And then in terms of the human impact on the fall foliage, oftentimes, I think when you're driving around, you'll see that the trees closer to the roadway tend to turn faster. just anecdotal. Is that because of the movement of the cars, the carbon dioxide, the pollution that comes off of the roadway?

Bauerle: So very true. That's not just anecdotal. We do often that that is in fact what happens. We even see it, for example, on the edge of a field or something like that. And it tends to be more because those trees that are on the edge are experiencing more extreme events in their climate. So they tend to be a little bit more stressed. They tend to either get a higher heat load or get colder faster if the temperatures are low. So it's more about their environment not necessarily CO2 or something like that from the cars.

Levulis: If you were planning a fall foliage road trip throughout New York State this fall, where would you start? Where would you end? What would that track be?

Bauerle: Yeah, well, I guess I would start more towards the northern parts of the Adirondacks. It's just because those are the areas that tend to start to turn earlier and first. And, like I said, their weather has been pretty good this year. So they should be on track for a relatively normal season. And then I would probably head closer down towards my region here in Ithaca, where we are a little bit later in the season. But like I said, that could be kind of thrown on its head if we don't get much moisture in the next few weeks and if these trees are actually changing faster than they normally would just because of those drought events. So that's a tricky question this year. Yeah, that's hard to say.

Copyright 2022 WAMC Northeast Public Radio. To see more, visit WAMC Northeast Public Radio.

Born and raised in Eden, NY, Jim has been WAMC’s Associate News Director since October 2016. Since 2020, Jim has hosted WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. From 2013 to 2016, he worked as WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief.