‘Leaf chasers’ may benefit from wetter, cooler weather

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 217 views 

This is the time of year that professional foliage spotters turn their eyes to the tree tops and begin calculating the colorful fall forecast for the Arkansas region.
Arkansas has several major foliage regions: Northwest, North central Arkansas (Ozarks), Central Arkansas, Ouachita Mountains and Southern and Eastern Arkansas. Leaf Chasers from every demographic report specific areas and highways during peak color times in their areas so visitors can know the best times to visit.

In Northwest and North central Arkansas colors typically start changing in late September to early October. In Central Arkansas and Ouachita Mountain regions colors start looking good early to mid-October, and the Southern and Eastern portion of Arkansas sees color usually around mid-October.

The foliage season usually peaks in late October or early November in the Northern third of the state, early November for Central and Western Arkansas, and early to mid-November for Southern and Eastern portions of the state.

Prominent in Northwest Arkansas are maple and gum trees which have full displays of color. There are early bloomers much like the dogwood which displays purplish-red to scarlet and sumac tones as well as a rich scarlet coloring.

The healthier the trees are the longer the season and the slower the colors will change. A dry autumn helps to keep the leaves intact on the trees longer. The best things that produce color are sunny days and cool, crisp nights. Frost and freezing temperatures can freeze the delicate leaves and ruin fall colors.

"Predicting how fast the leaves will change is really difficult to do," said Jennifer Neubauer, research project analyst at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. "I would say that it’s even harder than predicting the weather because there are two major factors that are used to predict the fall foliage forecast — and one of them is the weather,"

Healthy trees that received enough sunlight, nutrients and water have the best chance to show off colors. The shorter days cause the healthy tree to decrease its chlorophyll (what makes the leaves green), and the leaves produce more sugars and slowly start to change colors. The slow, gradual change of healthy trees is what everyone prefers because it extends the season. Unhealthy trees go through this process quickly and foliage peaks early and fast.
Officials like Neubauer say weather patterns during September and October in Arkansas are important for fall foliage. Leaves produce sugars for food during the day but cooler temperatures at night keep these sugars from moving out of the leaves and into the tree, so warm days and cool nights at the beginning of fall are good for production of red, yellow and orange colors.

Neubauer said windy days also play a role in affecting the foliage. As the leaves slowly turn, the stems become fragile and a gusty day can clean off a tree full of colorful leaves.

From January to August 2013, Arkansas had 36.93 inches of rain, more than the 25.8 inches during the same period of 2012, according to the National Weather Service. Most of Arkansas is still experiencing a drought, especially in the southeastern portion of Arkansas, but in August, all of Arkansas received higher than normal rainfall.

The August rainfall should help the trees stay healthy and produce a vibrant variety of colors this season, said Neubauer cautioning that rainfall alone is not the best indicator of what the fall season has in store.

"A lot of people think the rainfall heavily impacts the fall foliage, but really rainfall only effects the season to the extent of 'Did the trees get enough or too much water to be healthy?'"

The foliage season is an important time for Arkansas’s tourism. The weather cools down and the changing leaves bring out Arkansas beauty with a pop of color. State parks lodging and cabins rental are often booked solid all the way through October and November according to Neubauer. So it's important to make travel arrangements in advance.

"We get a lot of visitors all the way from New England who follow the leaves changing across the country," said Neubauer. "These 'leaf chasers' love to stay close to nature and many like to visit the local shops. It’s an important season for all of Arkansas."

The best time to look at foliage would be on cool, cloudy mornings when there is dew on the leaves. The clouds diffuse the sun’s light and provides the best opportunity for photography by reducing glare and the dew intensifies the colors.

Popular fall color locations and scenic drives include but are not limited to Crowley's Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway, Great River Road National Scenic Byway, Interstate 540, Talimena National Scenic Byway, Scenic 7 Byway, Pig Trail Scenic Byway and Interstate 530. Visitors can choose to view the changing of the colors by land – driving main highways or taking dirt back roads, by water – choosing boating views from lakes and rivers. Some people have been known to charter a small plane to look down on the color patterns.

For nine weeks starting Sept. 26, spotter teams compile their fall foliage reports which are made available at 1-800-NATURAL, and answered 24 hours a day.

Following are answers to frequently asked questions. The answers are from Dr. Tamara Walkingstick, associate director of the Arkansas Forest Resources Center.

Q. What factors are used to make predictions about the fall foliage forecast?
A. Despite what you may read or see about the best time to view fall colors, no one knows for sure. However, there are a few factors that can help in making predictions.

• Leaf volume
This is quite simply the fact that if there are more leaves on the tree as we approach fall, the more color we might have. Earlier this summer, we had pretty good leaf volume. However, over the past couple of weeks, drought conditions have increased across most of the state. Some trees are beginning to lose leaves early as a defense mechanism to the drying conditions. That may affect leaf volume.

This might work in our favor. Cool night temperatures and cool, bright sunny days enhance leaf color change. Light levels are responsible for fall foliage colors. More cloudless sunny days can mean more red and brighter pigments. Overcast days can lead to more yellow and browns.

This is somewhat tricky. If it's too dry, the trees will prematurely lose their leaves to protect themselves. However, slightly dry conditions during the last few weeks of the growing season can have a positive effect on fall display.

Another factor is simply the type of tree. Some tree species have a tendency to have more yellow foliage. Hickories are a good example. Other species like oaks can have red, orange, or yellow foliage.

Q. What other agricultural changes coincide with the changing of the leaves?
A. All plants are facing the end of the growing season. Some ag crops have already completed their life cycle. Others will end soon.

Q. Will the fall colors will be richer this year, and if so, why?
A. The last couple of weeks have seen a recurrence of drought conditions. If this persists, trees could simply go into dormancy early with little color change. These conditions vary widely across the state. Southwest and south central SW Arkansas has received less than 80% of their average rainfall, whereas parts of northeast Arkansas have received more than 110% of average precipitation. For August, precipitation amounts are much below normal with Texarkana only receiving 9% of the average precip! However, these figures are better than last year's.

In the January-August period, Arkansas recorded 36.93 inches of rain, more than the 25.8 inches in the same time during 2012. Last year the average temperature was 66.6 degrees. This year it 61.4 degrees. Generally speaking 2013 has been cooler and wetter than last year. So fall color will depend upon where you are Arkansas and will depend upon any future precipitation we might receive and where that precipitation falls.

Q. When will colors begin to turn/when will the color season end?
A. Some trees are already changing because of dry conditions. Usually the trees begin to turn in mid-October, with the Ozarks turning first.

Q. What will the scenery hold from Fort Smith to Northwest Arkansas?
A. Northwest Arkansas has had a little more rain than other areas. Forecasts suggest that the area will receive some rain in the near future. If these are not storm events with lots of wind, the color change might be OK. There is no real way to predict color change.

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