The Fading of Fall: Why the Bright Red Leaves of New England Are in Danger

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Oct. 24 2011 7:06 AM

The Fading of Fall

Why the bright red leaves of New England are in danger.

Red maple leaves.
The signature red maple leaves of autumn may be in danger of disappearing

Photograph by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

In October 1862, the Atlantic Monthly published “Autumnal Tints,” a barely posthumous essay by Henry David Thoreau rhapsodizing over the fall colors of his native New England. “Europeans coming to America are surprised by the brilliancy of our autumnal foliage,” the proud Yankee bragged. “There is no account of such a phenomenon in English poetry, because the trees acquire but few bright colors there.”

Almost 150 years later, New England boasts a worldwide reputation for spectacular autumnal colors. Beginning in late September, millions of "leaf peepers" from all over the world arrive en masse to zip along narrow roadways crisscrossing the region. In pursuit of the ephemeral "peak color," these tourists consult detailed maps and calendars, load themselves into station wagons and tour buses, tote volumes like the 656-page "Book of Leaves," fill up charming bed-and-breakfasts throughout the region, and traipse through dozens of foliage festivals and craft fairs. This year, tech-savvy peepers can download Leaf Peepr, a new foliage-tracking app from Yankee magazine, which also maintains the boosterish website YankeeFoliage.com. Those who can't peep in person can consult one of dozens of webcams trained on a variety of vistas.

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I live in New Hampshire, and the gorgeous forests up here are more than grounds for provincial pride. They’re also a major financial engine. Foliage tourism is routinely estimated to bring well over $1 billion to the region each year. Tourism is the top industry in northern New England. In Vermont, the peak period of foliage season—the last week of September and first three weeks of October—draws the highest concentration of visitors of the year. The state tourism board estimates that tourists spent $332 million over the course of 3.6 million trips in 2009, the last year for which numbers are available. Maine draws 9 million fall tourists a year; New Hampshire, 8 million.

That’s partly why the specter of declining foliage tourism is so worrisome to New England scientists and tourism leaders these days. Both climatologists and phenologists—who study the effects of seasonal changes on plants and animals—are becoming increasingly concerned about the effect of rising temperatures on Thoreau’s spectacular “autumnal tints.”

First, our signature crisp fall air seems to be turning less, er, crispy. The Union of Concerned Scientists has found that northeast temperatures have been rising by about 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1970, with winter temperatures rising at a rate more than double that. The group says that regional temperatures could rise another three degrees within the next 30 years, and up to 12 degrees by 2099.

This warming is already producing a constellation of region-specific effects, including a longer growing season and compromised sap production. Forest aesthetics are not immune. The New England Climate Coalition predicted a few years ago that if temperatures continue to climb unabated, “the fall foliage for which the region is famous will disappear as birch, maple, and spruce species migrate north or die out altogether.” New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services warned in 2008 that the state’s hardwood trees could move north by up to 300 miles. In Maine, scientists have enlisted citizens to document the effects of climate change by monitoring their own backyards.