Transitioning from summer into the colder months can feel like turning the corner and getting socked in the gut with a swift, icy fist. But at least the changing fall colors give us something nice to look at — especially this year. According to Jim Salge, the fall foliage expert for Yankee Magazine and a former meteorologist at Mount Washington Observatory, New England’s fall colors are shaping up to be particularly impressive. I caught up with Salge for more insight about how the forecasts work and what will make fall foliage in 2021 special.
How fall foliage forecasts are made
So how, exactly, does one actually predict the leaf-peeping prospects? Salge looks at all the factors that will determine how the foliage will look this fall, including last winter’s strangely fluctuating temperatures, a dry spring, wet summer, and the potential impact from leaf fungus and moths.
Unsurprisingly, the most important factor is the state of the forest.
“The health of the forest is the biggest determining factor in assessing the foliage season ahead,” Salge says. “While the leaves directly respond to the changing light and temperatures in the fall, every year is different. Excessive summer heat, drought and even deluge will impact the fall colors, and outbreaks of hungry bugs and leaf fungus need to be considered as well.”
In 2021, the forest is quite healthy and well-watered. In terms of the weather, days in the fall need to have warm and sunny days with cool nights for the the green chlorophyll to fade and the red pigments to form. (Salge describes the red pigment “as a sort of sunscreen for the transforming leaves.”)
Salge broke his prediction down between northern New England and central and southern New England. Here’s what to expect.
Northern New England
The optimal time for leaf-peeping: Late September
What impacts this year’s leaves: Dry spring and not enough rain in the summer will make the trees turn earlier than usual from cold fronts.
How long you have: Get out there early if you want to catch any colorful foliage, because it’s expected to be short-lived this year.
Central and Southern New England
The optimal time for leaf-peeping: October
What impacts this year’s leaves: A wet summer and a warm forecast will make up for pockets of insect and fungus damage.
How long you have: Go ahead and take your time — peak colors will go south from northern New England throughout October.