Most, if not all of Vermont just closed the window on peak fall foliage viewing. With any luck, you had the opportunity to pause and enjoy one of the most beautiful displays our state has to offer.
It’s something we need — storing up the memory of those blasts of color to sustain us through the long winter. While it wasn’t one for the record books, it was a decent season. We had a number of sunny days over the course of the one to two weeks when the trees put on their show and if you drove anywhere during that time, you probably noticed that out of state visitors were here en masse to appreciate the sights, as well.
Vermont and our autumn celebrations have been lucky in that aspect — so far. They’ve maintained and been consistent. However, other states that also have well-known fall foliage displays didn’t have as stellar of a year, and they may be the canary in the coal mine.
An Associated Press article by Patrick Whittle from Sept. 30 reported the heatwave that hit the Pacific Northwest this summer had a detrimental effect on the visual display we just enjoyed.
Trees in Oregon experienced “foliage scorch” which is what it’s called when their leaves too quickly turn brown and wither at varying times rather than shifting through the golds, yellows, oranges and reds of a perfect fall.
Whittle’s reporting hit closer to home when he interviewed a Vermont representative — Paul Schaberg, a research plant physiologist with the U.S. Forest Service based in Burlington. Schaberg offered some information regarding the other side of the foliage scorch equation when he noted that warmer temperatures can also keep trees from shifting to their fall routines, delaying the fall color.
Of course, we’re just talking aesthetics, and as a capitalist system, aesthetics takes a backseat in practical matters sometimes. So we should consider how much Vermont depends on seasonal tourism.
What would the loss of autumn mean for our state? How many businesses depend on the annual uptick in tourism around this time of year? Even if we’re looking at a not-quite-worst-case scenario — in other words, fall comes, but it’s just not as dependably predictable — the economic impact could be substantial. Businesses would need to scramble for extra help at different times based on how harsh the summer was for example and workers may not be available on short notice.
Not the ideal situation.
It’s not just heat causing the trouble, droughts also will stress trees and cause their leaves to wither and drop before they typically would.
While there’s a number of factors that can stress trees, most of those problems, unsurprisingly, are traced back to a unifying source — climate change. And regardless of what organizations and individuals funded by the fossil fuel industry will tell you, the scientific consensus is that humans are the main cause of the speed and severity of the planet’s change in climate today.
That’s why it’s so troubling to learn that even something as cherished as the annual turning of the leaves already is seeing the impact of our actions — and the actions of previous generations. We run the risk of having an event humans have likely enjoyed as long as our species has walked the Earth no longer be a thing for our grandchildren or maybe even our children.
Accompanying those troubles is the “not in my backyard-ism” that regularly crops up when there are proposals for renewable energy projects (a seeming necessity if we’re going to save autumn — and the planet overall). It’s understandable that people don’t want the natural views they love to be marred by solar arrays or wind turbines, but the alternative — not taking the steps needed now which by many indications will lead to the irretrievable loss of nature across the planet, for a few extra years of keeping a pristine view — doesn’t seem like a reasonable tradeoff.
Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2014 book, “The Sixth Extinction,” details some of the past notable extinctions among the five “mass extinction events” on the planet, where creatures like the American mastodon were casualties. She also investigates the problems we’re seeing today (hence the sixth extinction). Everything from rhinos to bats seem to be on the brink, coral reefs and rain forests, as well.
If we think just because climate change has mostly spared Vermont that it won’t catch up with us and the actions we need to take can’t take place in our backyards, we may be looking at backyards we don’t recognize any more and it may happen sooner than we think.
Which is precisely why we need to take action, even at the household level — whether it is composting, burning fewer fossil fuels, taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint — that will help in making the difference. At the micro level we have just as great an impact on the macro versions of our ecosystem as we did in creating the situation in the first place.
We see the impact. We are that impact. Conversely, we can change the impact. And we must.
Wishful thinking won’t keep traditional Vermont autumns off the list of a sixth extinction.