|Fall 2012... will this year be more colorful?|
What causes this phenomenon?
As for the primary cause, the Science Made Simple website posting Autumn Leaves and Fall Foliage: Why Do Leaves Fall Colors Change? explains "The bright reds and purples we see in leaves are made mostly in the fall. In some trees, like maples, glucose is trapped in the leaves after photosynthesis stops. Sunlight and the cool nights of autumn cause the leaves turn this glucose into a red color. The brown color of trees like oaks is made from wastes left in the leaves"
Why are the colors more brilliant some years than others?
From the USDA Forest Service's Why Leaves Change Colors, "A succession of warm, sunny days and cool, crisp but not freezing nights seems to bring about the most spectacular color displays. During these days, lots of sugars are produced in the leaf but the cool nights and the gradual closing of veins going into the leaf prevent these sugars from moving out. These conditions-lots of sugar and lots of light-spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples, and crimson. Because carotenoids are always present in leaves, the yellow and gold colors remain fairly constant from year to year."
The exact opposite of what I had thought -- I had it in my head that the "good" years were caused by an early hard frost. According to this explanation, this should be a good year for brilliant colors.
From The Science of Color in Autumn Leaves (The United States Arboretum), "Temperature, sunlight, and soil moisture greatly influence the quality of the fall foliage display. Abundant sunlight and low temperatures after the time the abscission layer forms cause the chlorophyll to be destroyed more rapidly. Cool temperatures, particularly at night, combined with abundant sunlight, promote the formation of more anthocyanins. Freezing conditions destroy the machinery responsible for manufacturing anthocyanins, so early frost means an early end to colorful foliage. Drought stress during the growing season can sometimes trigger the early formation of the abscission layer, and leaves may drop before they have a chance to develop fall coloration. A growing season with ample moisture that is followed by a rather dry, cool, sunny autumn that is marked by warm days and cool but frostless nights provides the best weather conditions for development of the brightest fall colors. Lack of wind and rain in the autumn prolongs the display; wind or heavy rain may cause the leaves to be lost before they develop their full color potential."