Warm weather delaying fall colors along Blue Ridge Parkway, experts say

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The fall foliage season in the southern Appalachians generally begins in late September and winds down in early November. Photo Credit: iStock

Upstate residents eager to make their annual fall pilgrimage to the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina may want to reconsider their travel plans.

The fall foliage season in the southern Appalachians generally begins in late September and winds down in early November, according to Don Hagan, an assistant professor in Clemson University’s department of forestry and environmental conservation. But the above-average rainfall over the summer months coupled with warm temperatures continuing well into October, could delay the annual display of colors. 

Hagan, who assesses foliage and makes annual predictions for when the leaves will change color, recently visited Devil’s Courthouse, a mountain in the Pisgah National Forest in Transylvania County, North Carolina, and found the foliage lacking its usual hues of red, yellow, and orange.

“There’s not a whole lot of color happening yet,” Hagan said, “but it’s coming soon.”

According to the United States National Arboretum, a wet growing season followed by a dry autumn filled with sunny days and cool, frostless nights produce the most brilliant fall colors.

In analyzing the region’s temperatures, Dr. Howard Neufeld, a biology professor and fall foliage forecaster at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, found that nighttime temperatures in areas above 2,000 feet elevation have been more than 9 degrees warmer than average this fall, while daytime temperatures have been a little less than 4 degrees warmer than normal.

“This means that the current fall weather is unprecedented for as far back as weather measurements have been made. That being said, it also means that the responses of the trees to this unusual weather are also unprecedented, since they have never experienced this before,” Neufeld wrote in his latest Fall Color Report posted on Appalachian State University’s department of biology website.

Neufeld added that a warm period during autumn would not only delay the colors but also decrease the intensity of fall foliage.

“Some trees, like red maples and tulip poplars, may simply drop their leaves before they develop significant color, resulting in a fall color display somewhat like last year, which also had above-normal fall temperatures,” he wrote.

According to the North Carolina Climate Office, the three-month outlook for the southern Appalachian region shows a slight chance for above-average temperatures. October is expected to have upper 60s for the highs and mid- to upper-40s for the lows.

On the bright side, however, Hagan said there are few signs that Hurricane Florence damaged leaves in the region, meaning there is still potential for an abundance of autumn hues this fall season.

Many forecasts for Florence had called for heavy winds and rain with the potential to dampen fall colors in the western Carolinas, but the majority of severe weather occurred along the coast, according to Hagan.

“We didn’t see the direct impacts here along the southern Blue Ridge Parkway like we could have seen,” he said. “Had we seen a little bit more wind and a little bit more rain, we could have seen leaves getting knocked off before they ever had a chance to turn — and we just fortunately didn’t see that this year.”

As for when exactly the leaves will begin to change color, Hagan said that, based on the amount of green foliage still visible above 5,000 feet, the majority of fall color in the southern Appalachians will depend on the weather through the remainder of October.

“If it’s warm, moist, and sunny, plants are going to hold onto the leaves as long as they can,” he said. “So if we have a warm fall, like it seems like we’re going to have, we could potentially have a later start to our fall color season and a longer fall color season.”

An interactive map created by SmokyMountains.com shows the Upstate and western North Carolina hitting peak foliage during the week of Nov. 5. The tourism website analyzes National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data on historical and forecast temperatures and precipitation, along with leaf peak trends, to predict when leaves will change across the nation.

Hagan said red spruces and other deciduous trees in the range of roughly 4,500 to 5,000 feet of elevation would be the first to change colors in the southern Appalachians.

“The species that make New England famous for having such a beautiful fall color season, we have them here, too,” he said. “You’ve just got to be up at this higher elevation to see them.”

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