Losing Leaf Peepers: the Effect of Climate Change on Fall Color
Every autumn as the seasons turn, the leaves begin to change and tourism picks up across much of the Eastern U.S. The spectacular foliage draws throngs of international travelers and locals alike. But, these leaf peeping vacations are not unique to the United States. Worldwide, areas of Northern China, Western Europe and Southern Canada also draw crowds.
With rising awareness of global climate change, scientists have turned a new eye to the fall color. Last month, researchers from The Chinese Academy of Sciences published in The Journal of Tourism Management, suggesting that climate shifts have altered the timing of seasonal vegetation changes in China. These researchers compared leaf coloration records and monthly air temperature data over the last 30 years and found a significant delay in the beginning of foliage color change of approximately 5 days per decade. Peak coloration was also postponed by an average of 4.5 days per decade.
However, the timing of fall foliage vacations did not change over the 30-year period. People were still traveling over the same holidays, but delays in phenology led to a mismatch between vacation dates and the peak of the autumn display. Forests that were breathtaking in mid-October 10 years ago have become less impressive year by year. The display is not any less beautiful, but many people are now missing the most spectacular window because the color peaks later.
These changes in the timing of leaf coloration could have devastating impacts on popular tourism communities if the perceived value of these destinations diminishes over time. In coming years, it will be critical to address changes like these if we hope to maintain the traditions and communities built around climate-sensitive seasonal change.