Record-high temperatures and dry conditions have wilted Karl Niklas' hopes for a vibrant fall foliage season, even as some areas hit peak vibrancy.
Niklas, a Cornell University professor of plant biology whose research focuses on the relationship between plants and the physical environment, said Wednesday that this week's heat wave — the latest on record, according to the National Weather Service — combined with recent dry conditions couldn't have come at a worse time for leaf peepers.
"A month ago, I would have said it was going to be spectacular [fall foliage]," Niklas said. "Now, I'm not so sure."
That assessment was borne out Wednesday in the weekly I Love New York fall foliage report, which relies on a network of leaf spotters around the state who are trained to observe foliage changes and predict how autumn colors will develop over the coming week.
This week's report — the third of the season — notes that colors statewide appear to be subdued because of the hot, dry weather.
"A lot of our native trees are under stress, and when trees are under stress, they tend to drop their leaves — they pull the water out of the leaves, and then they drop their leaves."
That interrupts the process by which chlorophyll — which gives leaves their green color — leaves the foliage, allowing the reds, golds and oranges to show through. In many places, stressed trees are dropping green leaves, Niklas said.
"As a consequence, even if the leaves that remain on the tree are brilliant, there will be a lot more leaves on the ground," he said.
Temperatures are supposed to become more seasonal in coming days, and there are some showers in the forecast. It remains to be seen if that relief will come too late to save the autumn spectacle.
"Unless we get some real rain throughout the state, the quality of the coloration is going to be regional and very spotty," Niklas said.
And that has made predicting foliage change a spotty prospect, as well, according to Eric Scheffel, a spokesman for the I Love New York foliage program.
"We try to define peak as the overall best appearance that the leaves are going to have all season," Scheffel said. "So, if at the end of the season, the leaves are 100 percent changed, but they're 100 percent burned on the trees, then that's not peak.
"This is a tricky season, with some premature leaf change and droppage, and we're just trying to stay on top of it by letting people know where the best colors are going to be, even though, all across the state, the colors are subdued."
As is typically the case, the Adirondacks are the first region of the state to experience peak foliage, according to Wednesday's report. Specifically, higher elevations around Lake Placid in Essex County will be 95 to 100 percent of peak foliage change over the coming week, with about 80 percent color change in the village itself.
A complete breakdown of the report is available online at iloveny.com.
Scheffel said there have been no studies about whether a lackluster fall foliage season has an impact on tourism spending in New York. But leaf peepers are a known boon to the state's economy.
"It's one of our most popular travel seasons," Scheffel said. "Last year, travelers spent $27.2 billion during the fall season statewide."