Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: Warm, dry spell extends outdoor fun - at expense of foliage

LENOX — That Eagle photo on Friday of folks lounging in their short sleeves on the Red Lion Inn porch said it all: With another brilliantly sunny weekend more typical of early September, we're in a bizarre, off-the-charts season of late, lackluster fall foliage. Far below normal rainfall combined with unusual warmth in recent weeks are to blame.

As the Wall Street Journal put it a few days ago, "It's autumn. Somebody tell the trees."

Problem is, the trees that usually produce a splashy display of multi-colored hues in October go by the calendar only in one way — the shorter days are a cue to begin the transition from green to red, orange and yellow before dropping into a carpet of brown. Other requirements include adequate moisture combined with chilly nights and mild days.

But the tale of the tape at Pittsfield Municipal Airport's automated weather station reveals how unusual our fall season has been:

- Our first frost, 29 degrees on Oct. 17, was among the latest readings of 32 or lower since record-keeping began in 1938. (The earliest was on Aug. 25 in 1940).

- Following a summer notable for lack of heat, from Sept. 12 through Oct. 20 temperatures have been above normal — often by double digits — on 30 out of 39 days. A mini "heat wave" from Sept. 25-27 set record highs, in the mid to upper 80s on all three dates.

- Rain amounts since Sept. 1 has been paltry — only 4 inches compared to a normal total of 7.5 inches. We haven't had a through soaking since Labor Day weekend.

No wonder the trees are "confused."

At Berkshire Community College, atmospheric science instructor Joe Kravitz doesn't mince words, proclaiming this "the worst fall foliage season I can remember, the dullest I've seen since I moved to Richmond in 1990."

Kravitz, who's teaching a course on climate change this semester along with Bruce Winn, agrees that "we've had an incredibly warm fall" reflecting a noticeable trend in recent years that includes a longer growing season — tomatoes on the vine until mid-October, a month later than in the past, and lawns needing to be mowed well into November.

But winter remains the Berkshire season most affected by climate change — fewer, less severe cold snaps and, with only a few exceptions, lower snowfall totals compared to the period from the 1960s into the 1990s.

Kravitz gave me an explanation that doesn't require a science degree: Because the high Arctic latitudes have been most severely impacted by global warming, the contrast in temperatures between temperatures in the far north and the tropics has decreased. That weakens the jet stream, often pushing it well to the north, keeping colder air bottled up above the Arctic Circle — it was minus 27 on Thursday morning in Eureka, the research base in the Nunavut territory of Canada.

While shorter days trigger leaf color change to yellow and orange, the dramatic reds, russets and golds on maples require consistently lower nighttime temperatures than we've seen so far this fall. However, I'm told that if intrepid leaf-peepers head north toward the Adirondacks and into central Vermont, where it has been cooler and wetter, peak or just-past peak viewing conditions can be found for a limited time only.

"It's going to happen this year, but it's going to happen at different times and different places," according to Paul Schaberg, a plant physiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture based at the University of Vermont. "In my opinion, part of the fun of leaf-peeping is that adventure of looking for where the color is happening and when."

Fortunately for the Berkshires' fall tourism economy, the extended mild, dry spell has prolonged the outdoor recreation season for locals and for travelers, with no sign that visitors have been discouraged by a less spectacular autumnal display. Still, looking out the window at a mostly green landscape, it's hard not to miss the lavish, kaleidoscopic, colorful views that typically have made October a favorite month before what used to be the long, bleak deep freeze of winter.

Reach correspondent Clarence Fanto at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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