Fall Color Forecast 2023

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Published: Sep. 13, 2023 at 1:00 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 13, 2023 at 1:12 PM EDT
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SAGINAW, Mich. (WNEM) - It seems like just yesterday we were in our latest round of heat and humidity, hoping for relief anytime soon.

Now that we’ve gotten relief and flipped the calendar over to the month of September, it feels like we’re moving on and never going back! But if you’ve lived in Michigan long enough, you know summer doesn’t give up that easily, and September is usually good for some “summer’s last stand” kind of days.

Regardless, we’re getting into the time of year where fall colors start to show, and we’ve already started seeing some low color reports in the Upper Peninsula! So now we’re starting to look ahead to our peak fall colors.

First, what causes our leaves to change?

  • Smaller amount of daylight with shorter days, longer nights
  • Cooler temperatures
  • Stress to trees

Examples of stressors to trees can be things like drought, excessive rain, excessive heat, disease, etc. Ideal conditions are warm sunny days and cool nights. Once fall colors do turn, we’ll need to hope for as many days as we can with light winds. Of course the more high wind days we have, the more the leaves blow off the trees.

With our changing climate, peak colors have been a bit later in recent years, with cooler temperatures arriving a little bit later into the season. This can be observed when examining how far south peak foliage advanced in recent years. 2017 through 2019 are quite indicative of that, in those falls we had a strong surge in temperatures in late-September and early-October which delayed the onset of peak colors farther south.

This map compares where peak foliage had advanced to by mid-October.  As a note, in the years...
This map compares where peak foliage had advanced to by mid-October. As a note, in the years under "Only U.P.", peak foliage had not advanced into the Lower Peninsula yet.(WNEM)

2023 Peak Color Forecast

Predicting the peak of fall colors is tough, but we’ll give it our best shot based on how things are evolving this year. Based on what we’ve seen thus far, we expect the peak to be near our average dates, or just slightly earlier. You’ll find our map pictured below.

Peak color moves down Michigan mainly in October. First Alert forecast has a period where you...
Peak color moves down Michigan mainly in October. First Alert forecast has a period where you could see autumn colors around the state.(WNEM)

Although we’re coming out of drought now and have been for a few weeks now, we’ve also had areas of excessive rainfall, especially in the month of July, which can contribute to tree stress just like excessively dry conditions. Add in the stress during the beginning of the season with the drought conditions, it’s hard to imagine this won’t factor in at least slightly. And although we haven’t seen a huge changeover yet, some early colors have popped on a localized basis in recent weeks, a sign of some of that stress.

The interesting wildcard: did wildfire smoke have any impact? Likely not a huge impact since we weren’t constantly exposed, but in areas that experienced the most smoke through the summer, which can block out solar radiation, perhaps a small impact is possible with less incoming sunshine. Though this may be offset by the sunny days we had with a lack of rain.

Our earlier window in the Upper Peninsula, including September 25th is not expected to apply to the vast majority of the U.P., but more the western portion. We wouldn’t be shocked to see some early peak on a localized level, with these areas experiencing drought conditions for a longer period of time.

Some of these areas, according to the Foliage Report, have already started seeing “low color” with a few leaves on some trees starting to turn.

In addition to these factors, September has started off on the cooler side of average and we’ll have some nights in the 30s and 40s coming up around the state in the next few days. Of course, those nights start becoming more frequent into October.

The only caveat, the Climate Prediction Center is pointing toward an above-average temperature trend for the second half of the month, so we’ll need to see just how warm things get. If it’s a significant warm up, that could delay things a bit compared to our current thinking. Keep in mind, above average for the end of September doesn’t necessarily mean hot temperatures in the 80s, it may mean middle 70s as our averages get cooler.

Regardless of how things progress, we’ll have updates weekly, so you can monitor the progress of the change in real time, allowing you to make any adjustments to travel plans!