While 2020 has been a year filled with not-so-good news, it may be the perfect year for vivid fall colors in the Chattanooga area.
According to local meteorologists, the region has been set up for a potentially spectacular array of vibrant leaves this year thanks to record rainfall and cool, but not freezing, temperatures at night.
"The only thing that will hurt the leaf color, in my opinion, is [when] it's very, very, very dry for a long period of time and the leaves start dropping early," said Paul Barys, chief meteorologist at WRCB-TV Channel 3 News. "Because when leaves start dropping real early, that's a way the tree is protecting itself from drought. And this year, that has not happened because we're over 20 inches above normal in rain for this year."
From October 2019 through September 2020, the Tennessee River basin was drenched with 75.74 inches of rainfall, or 50% more than normal for that given time period. That's the wettest 12-month period ever by about 2.8 inches and, for the first time, rainfall has been above average every month for 12 consecutive months.
If rainfall continues at its current pace, calendar year 2020 will be the wettest calendar year on record, surpassing the previous record high year in 2018 and also topping the second highest year on record, last year.
Moisture from record rains can make for healthier trees that are more likely to hold onto their leaves while the colors change, rather than shed them early. And the recent inches of rain from Tropical Storm Beta likely gave the area a bit of an extra boost.
Fall leaf colors are a combination of three factors: leaf pigments, the length of night and weather, the U.S. Forest Service's website states.
During the warmer months, ample sunshine, active chlorophyll and the process of photosynthesis keep leaves green. But as the weather gives way to cooler temperatures, carotenoids and anthocyanin pigments present in leaves are able to shine through as chlorophyll production slows.
Warm, sunny days and cool, but not freezing, nights may also help to make colors be more vibrant as the warm days promote sugar production in leaves, which aids the production of anthocyanin pigments, but cool nights prevent those colors from leaving the foliage, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
While conditions now may be ideal for a bright fall season, local arborist and owner of Scenic City Arborists Benjamin Moore believes that it's important to remember that sometimes it is hard to truly predict what could happen. Quick, sudden shifts in the weather could always have unpredictable outcomes for how leaves and trees will appear from year to year, he said.
National Weather Service meteorologist Danny Gant said models for the Chattanooga area are predicting lower-than-average temperatures coupled with low precipitation for the next few weeks, while in the long term the rest of the fall is expected to have average precipitation and slightly higher-than- average temperatures.
The meteorologists and Moore predict that if all goes well, residents can expect the full array of changing colors to peak sometime near the end of October and into the first few weeks of November.
And, as Barys always likes to remind people, as long as the leaves are still on the trees in mid-fall, vibrant, picturesque scenes are more likely on bright, sunny days.
"The one thing that I found out in all the years that I've been down here is that if the sky is blue and there is a lot of sunshine, the leaves, the colors will pop," he said. "If the leaves are looking really good, but it's cloudy out, it doesn't look that good. It's that simple."
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