Expert Alert: The Drought's Impact on Autumn Colors

Sep 14, 2021

Fall colors are as anticipated as pumpkin spice lattes and sweater weather, but this year’s drought has put a damper on things.

Because much of northern Minnesota remains in an extreme drought, Jessica Savage, assistant professor in the Swenson College of Science and Engineering, says things may look a little different.

Here are her thoughts on what we’ll see this year:

1. How is this year’s drought impacting the fall colors?

On a dry year, leaves tend to turn colors earlier and drop more quickly than in wet years. This often results in less spectacular and shorter periods of fall foliage viewing. In the Arrowhead region, we are starting to see some colors and this is about two weeks earlier than last year. 

2. What other types of weather affect the foliage?

One of the other main factors that impacts the color and timing of fall foliage is temperature. Cool nights can stimulate earlier color change and sometimes lead to brighter colors including more reds.

3. Would more rain this month help trees maintain their vibrancy?

In the Arrowhead region, I don’t think more rain will help because plants are already starting to turn. The program to drop leaves is often started in plants before we see much color change. 

4. Is there anything else you'd like to add? 

One year of early leaf drop because of drought will have minimal effect on most woody plants, but if we have multiple in a row, it can be stressful. Plants make sugar using sunlight and they have less “food” when the growing season is cut short. 

About Jessica Savage

Jessica Savage, assistant professor, explores the physiological-basis of how plants interact with their environment, and how these interactions impact broader patterns in plant ecology. Recently, her research has focused on seasonal changes in vascular transport and phloem transport.   

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