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AUSABLE WATER WISE: Relationship between fall colors and rain

Foliage on Bear Cub Lane, Lake Placid (News photo — Andy Flynn)

Currently, much of the northeastern United States is in a drought. As I write this piece on Sept. 12, Lake Placid and all of Essex County recently entered level D0 “Abnormally Dry” on the U.S. drought monitor. Even without turning to this drought report, you can tell it’s been a dry summer, from the low water levels to the consistent fire danger warnings, to the lack of mud on notoriously muddy trails.

At the same time, pops of color have begun appearing throughout the park as leaves change. Which got me wondering — how might drought influence fall foliage?

The main reason trees begin to drop their leaves in autumn is the shortening of daylight, reliably captured by our calendars from year to year. Weather is secondary but remains influential. It does not follow the calendar reliably from year to year, especially as climate change drastically alters patterns of drought and the frequency and intensity of storms. Because of this variability year to year, weather can play a spoiler role in the timing of peak foliage, how long it will last, and how vibrant it will be. The recipe for the best fall foliage is a wet spring, followed by a warm but not too hot or dry summer, ending with a fall that’s warm during the day and cool at night.

A lack of rain in this formula stresses trees and leads them to drop their leaves early, as seems evident this year, thus shifting the timing of peak fall foliage. Drought conditions can also dull the vibrancy of fall colors, creating more browns and tans than bright yellows, reds or oranges. Some late summer rain can help, but this year it’s likely the damage has been done.

The Adirondacks will still likely be one of the best places to view fall foliage this year, as it has overall been less affected by a lack of rain this summer than many other parts of the region. Other areas of the northeast which are in higher levels of drought intensity are already predicting poor foliage showings.

Unfortunately, this likely isn’t the last year we will be talking about this phenomenon. As climate change continues to shift weather patterns, we may have to shift our viewing expectations and take our beautiful colors when and where we find them.

Come celebrate autumn and the work of the Ausable River Association at our September Shindig on Wednesday, Sept. 28. It’s a benefit for our work to understand climate change and build resilience in the Ausable watershed and beyond. Visit ausableriver.org/events/september-shindig for more details and to purchase your ticket.

(Carolyn Koestner is a GIS and science communications fellow at the Ausable River Association.)