A favorite American pastime in fall is to pack a picnic basket and set off with loved ones on a Sunday drive along one of the nation’s many scenic byways. It’s a time of year when people enjoy crisp cool weather and marvel at the transforming landscape as tree leaves turn from lush green to gorgeous shades of yellow, orange, red, purple and brown.
While we relish the opportunity to frolic in a big pile of freshly raked leaves, we don’t often think about the science behind why leaves change color and eventually fall from their branches. The answer may surprise you!
Weather factors such as temperature, sunlight, precipitation and soil moisture influence fall color arrival, duration and vibrancy. According to United States National Arboretum, a wet growing season followed by a dry autumn filled with sunny days and cool, frostless nights results in the brightest palette of fall colors. Changes in weather can speed up, slow down or change the arrival time of fall’s colorful foliage. For example:
How can you find the best place and time to see fall foliage in your area? NOAA’s National Weather Service regional forecast offices can provide you with a 7-day forecast of weather conditions, including the arrival times of different air masses, to help you determine the best location in your area for vibrant fall color.
Trees actually begin to show their true colors in autumn, and here’s why.
The four primary pigments that produce color within a leaf are: chlorophyll (green); xanthophylls (yellow); carotenoids (orange); and anthocyanins (reds and purples). During the warmer growing seasons, leaves produce chlorophyll to help plants create energy from light. The green pigment becomes dominant and masks the other pigments.
Trees must replenish the chlorophyll because sunlight causes it to fade over time. As days get shorter and nights become longer, trees prepare for winter and the next growing season by blocking off flow to and from a leaf’s stem. This process stops green chlorophyll from being replenished and causes the leaf’s green color to fade.
The fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage.
Fall’s color “parade” varies from region to region and year to year, depending on weather conditions. For areas under calm and dry high pressure, cool nights and sunny days can lengthen fall color displays. Cold or warm fronts can produce strong winds and heavy rain that cause leaves to fall off trees more rapidly.
If you’re planning a trip to see fall foliage, first check out the current and near-term weather conditions in your area from NOAA’s National Weather Service.
The Web links below offer a variety of fall foliage resources, including popular scenic drives and peak viewing times. NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center offers a range of forecast information related to seasonal temperature, precipitation, soil moisture and drought conditions.
National Tree Cover Atlas:
Offers digital maps of forest cover for 25 different tree types, helping travelers seeking the right locations for specific fall colors.
United States National Arboretum
Learn more about the pigmentation processes that occur within leaves.