Study claims climate change is shifting Acadia’s peak foliage season

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 5:32 PM EDT
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BAR HARBOR, Maine (WABI) - According to a new study, climate change is shifting peak foliage season at Acadia National Park.

“I love fall, and I love data,” said Stephanie Spera, Ph.D., Second Century Stewardship Fellow.

As both a climate scientist and a native New Englander, Spera jumped at the chance to research climate change and its effect on Acadia National Park.

“Fall foliage is so charismatic, and I love it so much, and I was like, ‘I wonder if climate is affecting this? And if so, what does that mean for things like Acadia?’” said Spera, who also works as an assistant professor of physical geography at the University of Richmond.

“Before Stephanie, we hadn’t had any research done on how climate change is affecting fall foliage for visitation is a huge time for us, and there could be ecological impacts to our ecosystems as well,” said Abe Miller-Rushing, science coordinator, Acadia National Park.

Using satellite data, historical records, and visitor-submitted photos, among other sources, Spera determined peak foliage occurs about 10 days later now than it did in the 1950s.

“The timing of fall foliage is really driven by a bunch of factors, but really, two main things, that’s temperature and length of the day. And that’s how trees are deciding when to change the colors of their leaves. And, of course, the length of the day isn’t changing. What climate change is changing is the temperature. So, as temperatures are warmer, the trees can hold on to the leaves longer in the season,” Miller-Rushing explained.

“People plan these trips years in advance. So, if you’re like hoping, you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m gonna bet on a week to go.’ What week are you betting on? You’re not going to bet on that first week anymore. I’d bet on that second week,” Spera said.

Spera says peak foliage now happens around October 14 to the 18. That’s also about the time park operations start winding down for the season.

“We’re trying to cover that with the same amount of staff as we’ve had in the past so our ability to provide services later in the season is just constrained by our ability as to how many staff we have and how long we can hold on to them in the season,” Miller-Rushing said.

“I’m hoping it makes people who visit these parks really realize how fragile these ecosystems are, right? These places that we love, these things that we want to see, like, let’s think about how what we’re, what everyone is doing is affecting climate and how important that is,” Spera said.

The study found future climate change projections will push the timing of peak fall foliage to late October or even early November by 2060.

You can view the complete report here.