Marc Abrams has lived in State College for 33 years.
Abrams, a Penn State professor of forest ecology and physiology, said he has been called on annually for several years about whether the fall leaves would be as beautiful as years prior, with people picking his brain for his expertise of the foliage.
Having witnessed enough seasonal cycles in State College to know what will happen next, Abrams was originally not confident in this year’s future fall leaves display.
Abrams predicted in August that central Pennsylvania’s fall leaves could be underwhelming in comparison to years past.
Since making his prediction, State College’s weather has bounced back from its lack of rain, somewhat making up for time lost in the summer months, Abrams said.
“We had [a] really extreme drought situation happening in July and August and then toward the end of August, I started to notice that small trees were dying and some larger trees,” Abrams said. “The leaves were starting to change, going from green to yellow to brown and then some of the leaves were falling.”
The leaves were immediately dying instead of producing the signature yellow, orange or red colors, he said.
Having studied weather patterns for over three decades, Bill Syrett, an associate teaching professor of meteorology, also noticed an abnormality in this year’s weather.
“Across Pennsylvania, the rainfall [has] not been consistent,” Syrett said. “The central part has been about as droughty as anywhere, and… the trees are stressed during the year with high temperatures and low precipitation, which is what happened. We had our warmest summer ever in State College.”
Drought and extreme temperatures are poor conditions for creating vibrant leaf coloration, Syrett said, which means more leaves will be brown by the time they fall.
Abrams and Syrett’s studies correlate with one another, both noting that while State College has seen a rough summer, there is hope the area will have a colorful fall.
“We’ve had fairly decent rainfall in central Pennsylvania over the last couple of weeks but… we’re still down about six inches [of rain] over the last 90 days, and we’re still in an extreme drought situation,” Abrams said.
State College would have to see quite a bit more rain in order for the trees to become less stressed, along with some cooler temperatures in the coming weeks, Abrams said.
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Kathleen Brown, a professor of plant stress biology, said though some trees might suffer this year, others would still have some color.
Yellow trees, such as poplars, will be less affected, while sugar maples that turn bright red will likely be affected by the scorching, dry summer State College saw this year, Brown said.
Brown explained that fall coloration is impacted by sugar production and a phytochemical called anthocyanin.
“The red colors come from anthocyanins… [That is] what gives you the blue colors of blueberries, and of plum skins and apple skins and lots of other foods that we eat that are red, blue, [or] purple colors,” Brown said. “[Anthocyanins] production requires carbohydrates — sugar — from photosynthesis and also light. It’s also increased by the day and night temperature.”
Though they say there is hope for State College’s signature fall foliage, all three professors agreed there has to be a near perfect fall ahead in regard to precipitation and temperature.
“You get the best fall coloration when you have plenty of water in the summer and if the fall includes warm days and cool nights, but not frost,” Brown said. “If you get frost, it’ll start killing them.”