BUFFALO, NY -- It was an unusually warm September Monday for the students at SUNY Buffalo State, but that’s been the norm around Western New York since spring. The leaves here have not yet turned, and as October approaches, the question becomes what effect the summer drought might have on one of the area’s signature visual spectacles.
The answer, according to Buffalo State Biology Professor Daniel Potts, is complicated. “All things being equal, the warm spring would tend to accelerate the timing of leaf color change and push it forward in the calendar," he said. "If we have a warm autumn, and it seems to be headed in that direction, then we could expect a delay in the color change, and that’s a difficult answer, right? It could be a little of both.”
Potts points out that one result he does expect is an alteration in the specific colors we see. “Those pigments are manufactured by the plants in the fall, and so a stressful autumn might limit the plants’ abilities to produce those red pigments. So based on that, I predict that the yellow and gold colors of the autumn leaf change might be less effected. The oranges and reds would be more effected," he detailed.
While some trees around the area might look like they’ve begun the process of dropping leaves, Jackie Albarella, host of WGRZ's 2 The Garden explains that isn't due to the approaching seasonal change. This summer wasn't exactly a tree's paradise. “Some people think the trees are turning in some places, and really they’re not really turning into that fall foliage that makes our city so beautiful. What’s happening is they’re so stressed out, the leaves are getting dry and are kid of shriveling up and falling off the trees," she lamented.
Scientists aren't exactly sure why tree leaves change colors. Popular theories include it's intended as a warning to insects looking to lay eggs or as a form of sunscreen. The most prominent influences on when the turn occurs are the length of the day, temperatures, and the water available to the tree. This year's drought was so severe that Potts thinks the conditions might even impact next fall’s leaves as well. “The resources that the trees gathered this summer are what fuel next summer’s crop of leaves," he explained. "And if they had a real rough go of it this year because of the drought and because of the warm conditions, that could limit their ability to put on a display next year.”