Granite Geek: Why New Hampshire's Foliage Is Not Quite So Splendid This Year

Oct 6, 2015

It’s October, and it’s supposed to be foliage season. But the splendor of the foliage in Northern New England isn’t what it used to be. Climate change, local pollution, invasive species, disease and development have all conspired to change the multicolored landscape to make it less so. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with David Brooks, a reporter for The Concord Monitor and writer at GraniteGeek.org

You spoke to one scientist who was concerned about the health of the sugar maple tree. What’s wrong with New Hampshire’s sugar maple trees?

I had talked for this column to Barry Rock, who is now retired from UNH’s Earth, Oceans and Space Institute, and I called him because—actually, I’d talked to him five years ago about this same topic because of long-term research he’d been doing on forests. The basic problem—well, there are lots of problems, but the big one is that it’s getting warmer and seasons are changing in ways that are not good for leaf-peeping. The whole autumnal leaf thing starts because daylight hours change and as the daylight changes it triggers the trees to start doing things and one of the things they start doing is wall-off the leaves. And what you want to have happen is that the leaves change color before they fall off. And the changing color is largely dependent on the weather. The walling-off of the leaf is triggered by the daylight, which isn’t changing, but the color is triggered by the weather, which is changing. So it does seem like this is resulting in less splendid splendor, shall we say. I mean, you know, this is just about my favorite time of year, as it is with many people who live in New Hampshire, and the thought that it would be less splendid is kind of sad, but it does seem to be happening.

And we had a warmer than average September, ergo it’s not going to be great foliage-wise this year.

Well, it’s not quite that linear, the relationship is complicated, as in all things biological, but basically, yes. The warmer, wetter weather at least more bouts of very wet weather, which seem to be happening more as climate change happens, that also contributes to fungal diseases. I’ve got a couple of sugar maples on my property that four or five years ago were gorgeous and now they look like oak trees in the fall because fungus hit them.

The fungus issue isn’t just limited to your backyard. It’s statewide.

Yeah, it’s statewide, though it doesn’t seem to be as bad this year, probably because it was so dry. I was sort of hoping it would go away in my yard as well, but it doesn’t seem to have.

And so it’s possible that the leaves may be taken off the trees before they even have a chance to turn red or orange.

Let’s say they’re going to be more likely to as time goes on. It’s not like one year they’re all going to fall off when they’re green, but the odds of the conditions being ripe for glorious reds—particularly the reds and purples, which require the build-up of sugar, which makes New England’s leaves so splendid—particularly that problem is less and less likely to happen.

One of the reasons I called Barry Rock is that part of his research has been for remote monitoring of forest health. He’d been doing spectral analysis of forests over time to see if you could quantify how the colors were actually changing, as opposed to saying, “Golly, it doesn’t seem that the colors are so great this year.” Unfortunately the funding ran out as it tends to do these days for science research, so he doesn’t have good data over a long enough time, though it seemed that way to him. He saw no evidence that the difficulties that our forests were facing and their reflection—he saw no evidence that that was improving.

This leaf problem is symptomatic of a larger problem: that of rapidly changing global land and ocean temperatures. How do these come into play?

The same way that it’s coming into play with all climate change. The environment we have around us evolved to fit certain climate and weather patterns and if we like it the way it is, if those climate weather patterns change quickly, the ecosystems and the species involved in a certain way will have to change or die or move and that is—when people lament climate change, that’s really what they mean. The things that are around us, that we’ve built our lives around, that we’ve built our economies around, built our expectations around, are going to be greatly affected in a relatively short period of time. We’re talking decades now. Climate change is happening much faster than anyone thought it would and the effects are startling—ice melt, the tundra warming, all sorts of alarming things. So these environments we’ve come to expect are going to be increasingly stressed and leaf-peeping is a very visible example of what is going to happen. So my suggestion is, if you’re driving down the road and you see a really great maple, it’s just awesome, red and gorgeous, just stop and gaze at it for a really long time, because there’s a chance that twenty years from now, you won’t see many of those.

A different approach to leaf-peeping then: leaf staring.

Leaf staring, yeah. Try not to sink into despair and enjoy nature’s glories where they exist, even if they exist a little less often.