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US Forest Service Web App Features Trails for Leaf Viewing

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

ASHEVILLE NC – The U.S. Forest Service invites national forest visitors to use the new NCtrails.org web application for planning their fall foliage adventures.

Unveiled in May 2014, the searchable web application (web app) offers details on three popular trail systems in western North Carolina, as well as state-of-the-science information on the region’s forests.

The Browse Trails section of the web app includes information on trails in the Tsali (pronounced “SAH-lee”) Recreation Area, located in the Nantahala National Forest Cheoah Ranger District, and the Jackrabbit Recreation Area in the national forest’s Tusquitee Ranger District. The site also features two large sections of the Appalachian Trail that pass through the Nantahala National Forest.

The Forest Service’s Southern Research Station and National Forests in North Carolina produced the web app in cooperation with the University of North Carolina Asheville National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center.

Enjoy Fall Foliage in the Mountains

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

ASHEVILLE NC – The U.S. Forest Service National Forests in North Carolina unveiled its Fall Foliage 2014 webpage, which features scenic drives and other activities for enjoying autumn‘s colorful splendor in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests.

The feature is posted at http://www.fs.usda.gov/nfsnc, click on “Fall Foliage in Western North Carolina – 2014.”

The webpage describes scenic drives and popular locations for viewing mountain plants at high, middle and low elevations this fall. For example, driving along NC 28 and 143 in Graham County from Fontana Village to Stecoah Gap will allow visitors to see vibrant fall colors at the mid-elevation level. The webpage also includes links to webcams, maps and other useful online sources.

Record Rainfall May Dampen Fall Color Show

Monday, August 19th, 2013

ASHEVILLE NC – Abundant rainfall during one of the wettest summers in Western North Carolina history may portend a dampening of the intensity of the fall color show this year unless autumn brings vastly drier conditions, predicts Kathy Mathews, Western Carolina University’s fearless fall foliage forecaster.

“With record rainfall during July, the trees in the mountains look healthy and green at the moment, and that’s a good thing for the trees,” said Mathews. “But leaf-lookers need to keep their fingers crossed for some drier weather in the next couple of months in order for us to see the development of vibrant fall leaf color.”

An associate professor of biology at WCU who specializes in plant systematics, Mathews bases her annual prediction in part on weather conditions, including rainfall, during the spring and summer growing season. She believes that the formation of higher levels of pigments in the leaves correlates with dry weather throughout the year, especially in September. The drier the climate, the more brilliant the fall leaves tend to be, with bright red colors especially dependent upon dry conditions, she said.

“There always will be plenty of color in the yellow and orange hues,” Mathews said. “However, if the days remain cloudy throughout September, there won’t be as much of a pop of bright reds on the leaves.”

Yellow and orange hues result from pigments that the leaves make year-round, hiding under the green color of chlorophyll, she said. As days get shorter and nights get colder, the chlorophyll will break down to reveal the pigments underneath.

On the other hand, the red pigments – anthocyanins – are manufactured by leaves mainly in the fall in response to cooling temperatures and excess sugar production caused by lots of sun, Mathews said. “Dryness also causes production of more red pigment,” she said. “Studies have shown that trees stressed out by dry soils and nutrient deficiency produce more red pigment in the fall. Ample sunshine and dry weather is the combination necessary for brilliant fall foliage.”

Another factor in the annual fall color show is temperature. “Cool nights in September, with temperatures dropping into the low 40s, release the yellow, orange and red colors because chlorophyll degrades faster at lower temperatures,” Mathews said. “Temperature may work in our favor this year, as we have seen relatively cool summer months. If this trend continues, colors may be more vivid despite the rainfall.”

In any event, visitors to the WNC mountains this fall should expect good yellow coloration in the tulip poplars, birches, beeches, and hickories, and oranges in the buckeyes, maples and oaks, she said.

And there is an upside to all the rainfall, even if it means less-vibrant fall colors – the leaves should hang around longer, “With healthy, well-watered trees, we should not see much early leaf drop,” Mathews said.

Depending upon the timing of the first frost, the peak of fall color should arrive during the second week of October in the higher elevations, and during the third week of October in the mid-elevations, Mathews said. Because freezing temperatures quickly degrade chlorophyll, leaves peak in color intensity about five days after a frost, she said.

The color change should begin at the higher mountain elevations in late September and continue through mid-November in the lower levels of WNC.

Regardless of when the peak is and how intense the hues are, visitors always can find good fall color somewhere in the WNC mountains, with more than 100 tree species in the Southern Appalachians. That means not only many different colors of leaves in the fall, but also a lengthy fall color season, Mathews said.

WCU’s Fearless Foliage Forecaster Predicts Good, but Spotty, Fall Colors

Monday, August 20th, 2012

ASHEVILLE NC – Visitors to Western North Carolina’s mountains can look forward to a good display of color this autumn, although some areas will enjoy brighter hues than others, predicts Kathy Mathews, Western Carolina University’s fearless fall foliage forecaster.

The intensity of the color show will vary depending on where leaf-peepers are looking because of fluctuations in the amount of rainfall received across the region this spring and summer, said Mathews. An associate professor of biology at WCU who specializes in plant systematics, she bases her annual prediction in part on weather conditions, including rainfall, during the spring and summer growing season.

“This should be a pretty good year for fall color, but colors will be spotty,” Mathews said. “Many areas of Western North Carolina have experienced a lot of rainfall throughout the year, while Asheville and points north have been drier. The drier areas should have the best fall color, while the wetter areas will be less vibrant.”

Mathews believes that the formation of higher levels of yellow, orange and red pigments in the leaves correlates with dry weather throughout the year. The drier the climate, the more brilliant the fall leaves tend to be, she said.

“This has been an unusually rainy spring and summer for much of Western North Carolina, which, if it continues through September and October, could mean less color, especially in the red range,” she said. “However, if evening temperatures continue to drop steadily through the next two months, it will hasten the loss of green from the leaves to reveal more yellow and orange pigments.”

In addition, a trend of warm, wet weather could equate to a longer fall color season. Mathews predicts that areas that have seen drought conditions, including the U.S. Midwest, may experience bright fall color, but only for a brief period before trees drop their leaves.

As is the case with predicting the weather, there are no guarantees when it comes to forecasting the intensity of the fall color season. Cloud cover and ample rainfall in the weeks ahead could mute the color show, Mathews said.

Cooler temperatures and fewer hours of daylight in the autumn contribute to the decomposition of chlorophyll, the chemical that gives leaves their green color in spring and summer. As chlorophyll breaks down, yellow and orange pigments – always present in the leaves, but masked by the green of chlorophyll – are revealed, and new red pigments are produced.

Depending upon the timing of the first frost, the peak of fall color should arrive during the second week of October in the higher elevations, and during the third week of October in the mid-elevations, Mathews said. Because freezing temperatures quickly degrade chlorophyll, leaves predictably peak in color a few days after a frost, she said.

The color change should begin at the higher mountain elevations in late September and continue through mid-November in the lower levels of WNC.

Regardless of when the peak is and how intense the hues are, visitors can always find good fall color somewhere in the WNC mountains, Mathews said.

“We have more than 100 tree species in the Southern Appalachians, which means not only many different colors of leaves in the fall, but also a lengthy fall color season. Some trees change and drop leaves very early, such as tulip poplar and yellow buckeye, while others linger and change later, such as oaks and hickories.”

The U.S. Northeast and Midwest have fewer tree species with good fall color, mainly sugar maples, leading to a short burst of brilliant colors, she said. “The same is true in the Western states, with color mainly coming from quaking aspens,” she said. “In Europe, again, there are many fewer tree species, meaning shorter, less diverse fall color than in the Southern Appalachians.”

From the Great Smokies to the Blue Ridge, the WNC mountains offer ample opportunity for leaf-looking this fall, Mathews said.

“Look for some of the best colors on Grandfather Mountain, the Graveyard Fields area of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Nantahala National Forest along U.S. Highway 64 between Macon and Clay counties,” she said. “These and other ridgetop areas show colors in all hues of red, orange and yellow. The forested areas will have a lot of yellow tulip poplars, red maple, and orange and red oak. Graveyard Fields also has a lot of shrubs that turn red.”

Fall Colors Should Be ‘Excellent’

Monday, August 29th, 2011

ASHEVILLE, NC – Kathy Mathews predicts 2011 will offer an excellent season for fall colors in the Western North Carolina mountains.

The annual prediction from Kathy Mathews, Western Carolina University’s fearless fall foliage forecaster, should make chamber of commerce officials across the Western North Carolina mountains happy this year.

That’s because Mathews is calling for an excellent fall color show, thanks in large part to weather conditions over the spring and summer.

“2011 should prove to be an excellent year for fall color,” said Mathews, WCU associate professor of biology specializing in plant systematics. “While heavy spring rain is generally not a good sign for fall color, records indicate that rainfall was slightly below normal for March, average for April and May, and slightly below normal for June and July, as gardeners struggled to keep their crops watered,” she said. “These conditions actually are promising for good development of leaf color in September and October.”

In addition, mid-August brought a respite from the hot temperatures of June and July, another good sign of vibrant leaf color during autumn, she said.

Mathews believes that the formation of higher levels of yellow, orange and red pigments in the leaves seems to correlate with dry weather throughout the year. The drier the climate, the more brilliant the fall leaves tend to be, she said.

Of course, when it comes to forecasting the vibrancy of the fall color season, just as with forecasting the weather, there are no guarantees. Cloud cover and ample rainfall in the weeks ahead could mute the color show, Mathews said.

“Anyone remembering the last two years may have noticed a shortage of brilliant red leaves in our area, which could be blamed on cloudy weather and rain during the fall,” she said. “Hurricane season also can be hard to predict as far as bringing rain to the mountains, but if we see cool and sunny weather, we can expect nice red color to develop this year.”

Some weather forecast models show Hurricane Irene, currently moving across the Caribbean Sea, dropping heavy rains on Western North Carolina, which could affect fall colors in the mountains, Mathews said.

Cooler temperatures of autumn contribute to the decomposition of chlorophyll, the chemical that gives leaves their green color in spring and summer. As chlorophyll breaks down, yellow pigments – always present in the leaves, but masked by the green of chlorophyll – are revealed, and new red pigments are produced.

Depending upon the timing of the first frost, the peak of fall color should arrive during the second week of October in the higher elevations, and during the third week of October in the mid-elevations, Mathews said.

“Early November can bring surprising bursts of color, too, particularly between 2,500 and 3,000 feet as the oaks peak out in oranges and reds while other trees’ colors are lingering,” she said. “Those planning leaf-peeping vacations should have a fairly broad window of time in which to choose for viewing excellent color change in the mountains this year.”

The color change should begin at the higher mountain elevations in late September and continue through mid-November in the lower levels of WNC.

“Look for the earliest color change to take place on the sourwoods and dogwoods, which both turn red, as well as the tulip poplars, which become yellow but tend to turn brown early,” Mathews said. “Colorful maples, with hues of red, orange and yellow, and birches, which turn yellow, bring us into the peak period. Finally, oaks turn orange and red to round out the later color change in the season.”

Sweet birches and tulip poplars already are starting to turn yellow in the mid-elevations around Cullowhee, which is a normal occurrence for this time of year, she said.

“Over the month of September, the color change should continue and spread. Expect buckeyes to give pops of orange early, as well. Maples will add more yellow, oranges and reds as they gradually change in late September, and sourwoods should turn a beautiful, deep red,” Mathews said.