Leaves are big business in New York. By official accounts, the yearly fall foliage fireworks draw billions in tourism dollars. And it is expected this year will offer a sensational season.
Many factors leading up to and during the transition from warm summer to frigid winter could leave leaf peepers – along with some area officials hoping for a surge of revenue – looking at trees with wide-eyed excitement or only a passing glance of disappointment. Mother Nature ultimately gives a gift of bright orange and rosy reds or a palette of dull, muted tones. Sometimes, the leaves fall with hardly a quiver of change.
That has not been the case this year, according to area experts and state officials.
“I was just up in the Adirondacks yesterday, so I had a pretty good glimpse up and down the Northway and up into the mountains, and I think it is a great year, because it is a really gradual shift,” University at Albany College of Arts and Sciences associate professor George Robinson said Thursday, Oct. 3.
Robinson, an expert in botany, forest ecology and the science behind fall color, said there is a “real blend” of colors appearing and many trees are midway through the colorful transition.
“You got a nice mix of some green and flaming red and yellow,” Robinson said. “If you like a rich palette, this a great time.”
The science of the colors
A tree’s leaves change color as a result of losing chlorophyll, the chemical trees use to create food from sunlight. As the green chlorophyll goes away, the colors kick in.
When and how quickly leaves change depends on how warm the days and cool the nights are in the fall, according to Peter Constantakes, spokesman for Department of Environmental Conversation. Once temperatures dip too low, the chlorophyll stops working and the green color fades away.
“The timing here in the Northeast is highly variable and changes on an almost week-to-week basis. The colors that are left depend on how much food was made late in the season,” Constantakes wrote in an email. “The later they continue making food, the more red there will be when the green goes away.”
Outside of the mountains, Robinson said there hasn’t been a hard frost triggering a “big shift” in colors. The area has also avoided winter storms, which can knock leaves down early. A drought will also lead colors to change faster.
“I think we are just fortunate with the weather, too,” Robinson said. “It has been great.”
Of course, the unexpected could happen at any point before the leaves hit the ground.
“All it takes is one good frost and it changes everything, but I would say right now the northern reaches are at their peak,” Robinson said Oct. 3.
Red and orange makes green
Tourists spent about $70 billion in New York state last year, according to Empire State Development spokesman Eric Scheffel. That spending is undeniably tied to the fall season, he said, with about 25 percent of tourism dollars spent from September to early November. And that means leaf peeping.
“Usually, if they are going out between that time that is what they are doing,” Scheffel said about the timeframe.
The Northeast’s fall foliage is renowned, but New York stands out because the state has more broad leaf trees than any other regional neighbors.
“We have exceptional foliage in New York state,” Scheffel said. “We also have such an expansive area that you can experience peak foliage from any time from mid-September … to early November.”
Viewing foliage can also be tied to many other popular seasonal activities in the state, such as apple picking. October also brings with it Halloween-themed attractions such as haunted corn mazes, haunted hay rides and haunted houses.
There are a lot of scares, but some less frightful activities including antique shopping and heading into the wilderness for camping amongst the changing leaves.
Where to see peak colors
Knowing where and when to see the best leaf colors isn’t much of a guessing game anymore, as the state’s I Love NY tourism agency monitors the situation throughout the season.
Each year, the organization releases weekly “Fall Foliage Reports,” which can be viewed by visiting fallgetaways.iloveny.com. The weekly report is released on Wednesday afternoons. An audio report for each of the state’s regions is also released weekly and cane be heard by calling 1-800-CALL-NYS.
Scheffel said the reports allow people “to find where the best color is and also if they want to explore different backdrops, they can check out the reports for different colors that are appearing.” He added “peak” foliage for an area is considered when it will be best for viewing and not when all of the leaves have changed. By that time, it’s already too late.
“By the time many trees leaves are 100 percent changed, many of them are on the ground,” he said.
There are some seasonal norms people could usually rely upon for general planning purposes, though.
The northern portion of the state typically reaches its leaf-peping peak first. Much of the Adirondacks hit prime last weekend. The Upstate and western areas of the state usually follows soon thereafter, with Downstate being the last area to peak.
If you have not taken time to go leaf peeping, there still is plenty of areas in the state that will be at or near its peak this coming weekend. The Catskills should be ready for prime time, but local residents won’t have to travel far to view some great vistas. As The Spotlight went to press, peak colors were forecast to begin popping up in the coming days.
“In Rensselaer County, expect 40 to 50 percent color change with even more color showing in the eastern and northern parts of the county,” the Wednesday, Oct. 2, report read. “Saratoga County foliage spotters … expect midpoint of change with 40 percent color transition and bright, vibrant yellows, oranges and reds visible throughout much of the area, along with subtle shades of gold mixed in. In Albany County, it will be midpoint of change in the Thacher Park area of the Helderbergs. Bright shades of yellow and red predominate.”
Scheffel also encouraged people to share their foliage snapshots with I Love NY on Instagram by using the hashtag “#ISpyNY.” The organization’s Instagram account is “iloveny.”