Forecasting the fall color change calls to mind the comedy routine of the late George Carlin as the “hippy-dippy weatherman” who said, “Tonight’s forecast: Continued dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.”
The leaves will inevitably change color as the days shorten and the nights grow cooler. The real question is whether autumn will bring a fiery burst of color, or a slow parade of muted pigments that fade from yellow to brown.
Kathy Mathews teaches biology at Western Carolina University, and every fall for the past nine years she has issued a color forecast based on the complex interaction between leaf chemistry and weather patterns.
Mathews’ forecast in late summer wasn’t encouraging. Based on consistent rain as far back as April, she called for a below-average color display this fall. A few weeks ago Mathews changed her forecast. Now, thanks to the recent dry weather coupled with sunny days and cool nights, she believes the stage is set for good leaf color.
“Until we get the first frost, the colors will be uneven,” Mathews said. “Frost kills the chlorophyll and brings out the other pigments that are more cold-resistant. That’s when all the trees change at the same time.”
It used to be that leaf colors at the lower elevations peaked around the second week of October. In recent years the peak has come about two weeks later, usually in late October or early November. Scientists say the delay is likely due to warming weather patterns.
In the Great Smoky Mountains National Park there already is a splash of color above 4,000-feet elevation; lower down, the main leaf season still is about three weeks away. The park’s dogwood, sumac and sourwood trees already have turned orange and red. In a few weeks the hickories, maple and oaks will follow suit to produce the fiery colors that make October the park’s second busiest month next to July.
Wayne Clatterbuck, professor of silviculture and forest management at the University of Tennessee, said the recent dry, sunny weather should enhance leaf colors, especially across the spectrum of reds.
“When it’s continually overcast, the leaves still turn, but the colors aren’t as vibrant,” Clatterbuck said. “Everything is building up to a great fall. We’ve had sunny, dry weather, but not an extended drought.”
Terry McDonald, spokesman for the Cherokee National Forest, said he started getting phone calls asking about the leaf color change back in the summer.
“Last year it seemed the colors came on abruptly,” McDonald said. “This year we’re seeing a more gradual change starting at the higher elevations and working its way down.”
Leaf watching is big business in the Knoxville area. The Smokies maintains a fall color Web page — www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/fallcolor.htm — that’s updated weekly.
The Cherokee National Forests’ fall color report can be found online at: www.fs.usda.gov/cherokee/. After accessing the home page, scroll down to “Spotlights” and click on the “Fall Color Report.”
Here are some other recommended scenic drives for viewing fall colors in East Tennessee. Bear in mind that color will come and go sooner at the higher elevations than the lower elevations.
* The Ocoee Scenic Byway (U.S. Highway 64) through the Ocoee River gorge, elevation 838 at Lake Ocoee to 2,200 feet at the Chilhowee Recreation Area.
* Foothills Parkway, western tip of the Smokies, elevation 850 feet.
* Cherohala Skyway, Cherokee National Forest and Nantahala National Forest, elevation 930 at Tellico Plains to 5,390 feet at the crest of the highway.
* Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, elevation 2,440 feet at the Pinnacle Overlook.
* The Blue Ridge Parkway’s southern terminus between Cherokee and Asheville, N.C., average elevation, 5,000 feet.
For a deluxe leaf watching experience, check out these scenic railways:
Three Rivers Rambler (ph. 865-524-9411) makes a 90-minute run along the Tennessee River, leaving from downtown Knoxville.
The Hiwassee River Rail Adventure (ph. 423-894-8028) travels the Hiwassee River gorge, leaving from Etowah, Tenn.
The Big South Fork Scenic Railway (ph. 1-800-462-5664) follows the old Kentucky and Tennessee Railway from Stearns, Ky., into the river gorges of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.