The Incredible Shrinking (and Late Arriving Fall) Color Show

Higher Temps and More Rain, Humidity Mean a Later Onset of Autumn

How did this year’s fall color display in the Appalachian Mountains compare with those of years past? The short answer, at least when we were there to experience it, is…not that well.

For the second straight year, fall colors came late to the Carolinas. Another year of record temperatures coupled with heavy rain deposited by two tropical storm systems had much to do with it.

There’s no doubt that fall came weeks earlier and with greater vibrancy just a few years back.

Last year we made three trips to the mountains, from the closing days of September to mid October, in search of fall color. We hardly saw any. This year, we did see some…our third trip this year managed to catch the start of the peak in some areas. Still, the show compared to past years was notably subdued.

Take a look at some of the below pictures. None of these are doctored, enhanced, colorized, photo shopped or altered in any way…what you see here is pretty much what we saw there at the time. These directly below are from the Graveyard Fields/Sam’s Knob area, Oct 7 thru 8, 2008.

Graveyard Fields is a sea of rich color.


From the Art Loeb Trail

Here’s GSMNP during that same time frame…


And below are a couple from Oct 17 same year. As you can clearly see, the colors on display here (At Craggy Gardens) are actually PAST peak.




These two were taken in the vicinity of Mt. Mitchell on Oct 17 2010.



And finally this one, taken at a very soggy Roan Mountain along the Tennessee border on Oct 16, 2012. Even in the fog you can still see the Fall Colors pop.


By 2016 autumn had already begun a gradual creep forward. Here’s another one from Craggy Gradens, this one taken Nov 4 2016. Weeks further into the year than in the pictures above…yet as one can clearly see, colors are far closer to peak.


Compare these to our recent visits to the Blue Ridge ParkwayGraveyard Fields, Mt. Mitchell, and the Linville Gorge this year, all in roughly the first two weeks of October. Green predominates.

The question on our minds is…is this the new normal? Is the steady (and absolutely indisputable) rise in global temperatures fueling a later arriving and less impressive fall color show?

We certainly think it could be. And it could cost the state of NC alone millions of tourist dollars.

The Weather Channel did a piece on it which shows that the steady decline of fall is something that has been going on since at least 2012…it’s not our imagination. Peak fall color in the Southern Appalachians should be early-mid October. And the main reason for the delay? Warmer than average temperatures, especially average low temps.

Here’s another series of maps and charts documenting the slow (and rather underwhelming) onset of fall from the Washington Post. This year was clearly the most delayed onset yet.

Note that the seasonal change of colors is NOT primarily caused by temperature…in fact, even if the temps stayed exactly the same as they did in August, the leaves would still change. The primary driver is the amount of available daylight. As the days get shorter, the trees halt their food production process; chlorophyll, which gives leaves a green hue, breaks down and chemical change occurs. Leaves inevitably start to turn colors. But the temperature and amount of rainfall are still major drivers in how late or early the change starts, and how vibrant the colors will be.

Is global climate change a primary factor in the slow arriving fall? Too soon to say for sure, but there’s no doubt that temperature is rising, globally, and that the effects of higher surface temperatures on the earth will have profound effects on plant and animal life. The advance of fall is just one potential impacts.

Even nearer our house in Raleigh the change has been coming later and later. This year was the strangest yet…colors never seemed to peak, they just dragged on for weeks, with some trees changing in early October and some others not peaking until well into November. Now here we are on the doorstep of December, still waiting for many of the leaves to fall.

Our Japanese Maple out front has typically begun its beautiful red-gold display by the middle of the month. But last year it held off until around Thanksgiving. This year it didn’t start until AFTER thanksgiving.

At this rate, we’ll eventually see a year where the leaves aren’t finished changing until it’s nearly Christmas.

Sylvia and I love to travel to the western part of our state to see the wonderful fall colors. It’s a shame we haven’t seen much of them in recent years. Coming here from Texas, where there is almost no fall color at all – just a sudden browning and denudement – it was a real treat to see the autumn in NC looking more like Brian remembers from his day in New England. But we seem to be rapidly losing this, and that’s just a shame. What else are we gonna lose? And what can be done to stop it?

I’d say its about time we did something to arrest the progress of climate change. That’d be a start.

One thing is for sure…unless temps return somewhat closer to normal, we’re going to have to start planning our fall trips later in the year.

BecauseItzThere…later than usual.

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