In many parts of the country, this is one of the most beautiful times of the year. Deciduous trees are beginning to turn from green to many shades of red, orange, gold and even purple. Fall colors are truly a joy to behold – but have you ever wondered why leaves change colors in the first place? Here’s a quick explanation of the physical and chemical processes involved, the impacts to autumn foliage that we can expect to see due to the effects of global warming, and finally some of the best travel destinations in the U.S. to experience the beauty and grandeur of fall colors.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE COLORS
You may remember from biology class that chlorophyll is the chemical that gives plants their green color and uses the energy in sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into the nutrients needed for plant life. So when fall comes around and there is less sunlight with each passing day, plants slowly don’t have enough of the energy they need for the chlorophyll to make food. As a result, the other colors in the leaves which are normally overwhelmed by the green chlorophyll start to emerge. The many leaf colors which you’ll see across different species of trees all depend on the unique mixes and balances of various chemical pigments. As the production of food for the leaf cells continues to wane, there’s also a fascinating process going on at the base of the stem where the leaf connects to the branch: a group of unique cells develops that slowly cuts off the leaf, and when it finally weakens enough that it is blown off or falls due to its own weight, the cells provide a protective layer to heal the wound left behind.
THE IMPACT OF GLOBAL WARMING
As the Earth continues to get warmer, we could see increasing effects on the fall colors we all love so much. Currently, in most areas of the U.S., leaves usually start changing colors sometime during October, with some places experiencing earlier or later transitions based on unique local weather and climate conditions. But as the average temperature of the globe increases each year, we’re already seeing the average time of leaf color transition creeping later, one day at a time. Before we know it – by the end of this century, even – Americans could be seeing fall colors far closer to the end of autumn instead of the middle. Some scientists are also predicting that we will see fewer red pigments and duller colors overall. Additionally, we could see changes to the kinds of plant diseases and insect pests which will adapt and cause damage to leaves on various species of trees. A much more human factor would also be the loss of billions of dollars of tourism dollars that are generated each year by people taking vacations to view fall foliage.
“LEAF PEEPING” DESTINATIONS
While we’re on the subject of autumn vacations, if you’re thinking about “leaf peeping” – travelling to view and take photos of magnificent fall colors – there is a wide variety of great locations around the country. The Northeast is widely known for its beautiful fall colors, but there are plenty of other places in the U.S. that are noted for their dazzling autumn displays of brilliant foliage. So even if you don’t live near the Berkshires in Massachusetts or the Catskills in New York, don’t worry – you might be closer than you think to some truly beautiful leaves. The Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee hold some of the South’s best fall foliage and are easily accessible within a day’s drive of much of the Eastern Seaboard and parts of the Midwest. In the middle of the country, you can head to the Ozarks in Missouri, and up north you can take a trek to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for some breathtaking views. In the Pacific Northwest, try the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon. Even the Southwest offers some incredible colors at the Enchanted Circle Byway in New Mexico.
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