Fall Leaves Changing Color Early

As the Northland continues to deal with the effects of the ongoing drought, a familiar part of fall may be affected: leaves changing color.

According to Dr. Julie Etterson, the head of UMD’s biology department, there can be a variety of factors that cause leaves to change color, including cooler weather and shorter days.

"Trees use a lot of different clues to decide when they should draw in their chlorophyll," said Etterson. "That’s what makes them green and allows them to make sugars out of sunshine. Chlorophyll gets drawn back into the tree, and what’s left behind are carotenoids, and they happen to be yellow and orange."

While there are many conditions that cause leaves to change color, not having enough water is a major factor. 58.95% of Minnesota is currently facing severe drought conditions or worse. Over a third of the state is in extreme drought, and almost 6 percent is in exceptional drought, the worst category. Around twenty percent of Wisconsin is in moderate drought, as well as almost ten percent of Michigan, mostly in the U.P. The effects of this ongoing drought will be felt for years to come, starting with this year’s fall foliage.

"The coloration could happen earlier, and it could last for less time," said Etterson. "Some species that are more sensitive to drought might have their leaves brown up and just fall off."

"With this severe drought, the damage has been done," said DNR Forest Health Specialist Eric Otto. "I would say this year, it’s gonna be earlier and it might be shortened, especially in the northern third of the state."

Even the appearance of the leaves may be affected this fall.

"Some of the fall colors also just might be duller in appearance than usual, so instead of those bright, red/orange colors, you might have a more tan, bronze appearance," Otto explained.

To find out where leaves are changing color near you, go to our fall colors page here.

The latest drought update can be found at this link.