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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, April 18, 2024

How climate change is affecting fall leaf colors

Are we taking beautiful September days on State Street for granted? Research shows the joys of fall may be in danger.

 As fall approaches Madison, many of us look forward to a satisfying walk through a fallen rainbow of leaves in the crisp autumn air. 

But have you ever wondered what causes this aesthetic experience? 

According to the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF), there are three main factors that impact leaf color: leaf pigments, lengths of nights and weather.

Chlorophyll, the main pigment in leaves, produces their green color. However, at lower temperatures, chlorophyll production is suppressed. According to the National Health Institute, this results in a loss of color — causing the beautiful leaves of the fall. The orange and yellow pigments we see as a result are what scientists like to call the leaf’s “winter coat” — chemicals that are expressed to help trees fight off the cold and collect nutrients before winter arrives. 

However, NEEF reports that scientists believe leaf colors in the fall may become duller as climate change progresses and temperatures increase. A New England-based research study from 2013 found higher temperatures have delayed color change in leaves. This delay, in tandem with an earlier start to spring, prolongs the active growth season of plants. 

This could become an issue since a shorter fall season may result in trees being unable to collect enough sugar before the winter months arrive. Rebecca Forkner, a scientist at George Mason University, told National Geographic in 2022 this could impact how trees grow — or, more particularly, their inability to grow.

It’s easy to take for granted the trees that keep us alive by producing the air we breathe. However, unsuccessful growth may result in a decrease of vital oxygen production and force us to notice one of nature's most alluring gifts to us. 

Additionally, impaired forest growth will lead to a cycle of environmental devastation considering trees absorb around 30% of all carbon dioxide emissions, a main gas contributor to climate change, a 2021 Boston University study found.

These changes in tree growth and leaf color bode other serious impacts on our society — notably, the economy. National Geographic estimates $30 billion in revenue is generated annually from tourism in states like Maine and North Carolina as travelers visit specifically to see these states’ colorful fall leaves. 

Without the vibrant hues of autumn, these economic trends show chlorophyll won't be the only green we lose. 

While there is still more research to be done on the effects of delayed color changes in leaves, it is conclusive that this is a sign of environmental danger. The actions we take now to protect our environment and combat climate change are imperative to the longevity and prosperity of our future.

Even if we are fortunate to see the wonderful fall colors this autumn, we must continue our efforts to educate and act on climate change to ensure nature's beauty is sustained for generations to come. 

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