Looking out my back window this morning, it didn’t look like October. In fact, with many of the deciduous trees already bare and the remainder sporting either green or totally dead brown leaves, it was hard to know what to think. The lack of New England’s usually colorful fall foliage has prompted a lot of conversation this fall, and not without reason. Leaf peeping, as it’s affectionately known, is a major industry for the region. So what happened this fall?
- Hurricane Irene: While fears of a Hurricane Bob repeat didn’t materialize, Irene was not without impacts (even outside of Vermont). By blowing salt spray off the ocean and far inland, the storm did a lot of leaf damage. Within days, many trees were brown or bare. The warm weather that followed then brought on an even stranger sight – trees and shrubs leafing out anew and even blooming in late September.
- Warm fall: New England saw one of its warmest and wettest Septembers on record. That means trees didn’t get the usual “Hey, it’s getting colder. Time to stop making chlorophyl” signal. Brief biology lesson here: chlorophyl is the green pigment that drives photosynthesis; when trees stop making it, red and orange pigments get a chance to show themselves. One study suggests that leaves in Massachusetts are turning colors an average of three days later than they did twenty years ago, thanks to gradually rising temperatures. This year’s extreme, prolonged warmth meant the delay was much greater.
- Wet weather: The wetness factor may also come into play. In a recent newsletter, Dave Epstein of the gardening forum Growing Wisdom offers a slight variant on the straight global warming explanation. He says that wet, humid weather in the late summer and early fall allowed a leaf fungus known as anthracnose (no relation to anthrax) to fluorish. The fungus causes leaves to go directly to brown (do not pass red, do not collect tourist dollars).
So what – if anything – does any of this have to do with climate change? Maybe nothing. After all, weather varies from year to year. We can’t necessarily pin any one odd year on climate change. But this fall, with its warmth – particularly at night – and wetness, exhibits hallmarks of climate change. So, maybe, just maybe, it’s climate change in the flesh. At the very least, we might consider it a sneak peak of things to come.