WASHINGTON – The brilliant reds and golds of fall will be replaced by bare trees in Maryland this autumn because of the summer’s drought.
“We won’t have fall colors like we normally have,” said Jeff Horan, the Department of Natural Resources regional forester for Central Maryland.
The National Weather Service recorded just 3.61 inches of rain in Baltimore from July through Sep. 24, one-third the normal total for that time of year. Because of the drought, Horan said, leaves are drying up and falling off the trees before they can turn color.
“There is a similar situation here [in Western Maryland] as well, especially for Allegany, east of Garrett County,” said Becky Wilson, the DNR forester for that part of the state. “We’ve seen the leaves dry and drop off early.”
In Garrett County, a popular destination for those who want to observe the fall colors, some businesses are worried about the drought’s effect on their livelihoods.
“Probably not the colors we normally have,” said Ed Kemmet, manager of the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad.
But Kemmet said he has seen worse conditions. He also said the excursion railroad has not seen a drop in ridership yet or cancellations of reservations, some made in early spring.
Maryland tourism officials downplayed the drought’s effects on visits to the state.
“People do come to Maryland for fall festivals and some of our historic sites … whether or not the foliage is more gorgeous or less gorgeous than last year,” said Andrea Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Office of Tourism.
The summer saw a lack of rainfall throughout much of the East Coast, but central Maryland “has some of the most severe drought conditions on the East Coast,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Chris Strong.
Though some storms have passed through in recent days, the small amount of rainfall they brought has not alleviated the problem. And the weather service’s 90-day forecast for the region calls for below-normal precipitation.
Horan said the state’s forests are not yet in danger of massive tree deaths.
“Trees can survive a drought like this with normal rainfall for next season,” Horan said.
If it stays dry for the next few months, however, there could be an increase in forest fires, said Ric Lillard, manager of the DNR’s Green Ridge Fire Center.
Lillard said the amount of fuel for forest fires should be low, since the trees did not produce as many leaves this summer. But because fires tend to smolder in dead leaf litter, any fires this year may be harder to extinguish, he said.
“People need to be more cautious, generally people underestimate the danger,” said Lillard.
Leaves change color when chlorophyll, which makes leaves green, stops producing energy for the plant and breaks down. That reveals the yellow and orange pigments that are normally hidden by the green of the chlorophyll.
Fall’s bright sunny days and cool nights also produce an additional red pigment in leaves.
The different combinations of pigments produce the fall’s palette of colors, usually before the leaves to dry up and fall off.