The Leaves Are Changing

By: Sarah Brill  |  October 29, 2020

By Sarah Brill, Science and Technology Editor 

My mom tells me stories every autumn about when she was younger and would drive up the Taconic Parkway with my grandfather and grandmother. They would drive up just to see the leaves change. My mom always describes it as the Catskills looking like they were on fire with color. Growing up in Colorado, we didn’t get many trees, except pine, but when I moved out to the East Coast, the thing I looked forward to the most was the fall and the changing leaves. 

I attended my first year of college in upstate New York, home to these changing leaves. At that school, I took a global change biology course, which dove into the many implications of human impact on the Earth. One of the experiments my professor was working on and gathering data about was the changing leaf colors. Each year, he would have students document when the leaves would change and how vibrant they would appear. He measured vibrancy based on the photograph we would take. Our class examined data and pictures from as far as five years back, noting that every year the leaves would change later with less vibrancy than the previous. I noted this change as well. When the leaves did turn, the color was more muted than the pictures I had seen from past years, and even from years further back. Not to be a broken record, but my professor suspected, and I suspect as well, that these changes are being caused by climate change. 

It doesn’t take a scientist to reason that plants love the warm weather. However, it is not typical to see a plant grow in the desert areas of the Earth, nor the tundra-like ones. That is because these places, comparable to an alien planet, do not, and cannot sustain life that is not made for that environment. Now consider humans. Humans are creating an artificial environment that cannot sustain plant life. We are slowly creating our own tundra or desert. With our planet slowly warming, the plants will first “enjoy” the extra sunlight and shed their leaves later on in the year. But, as temperatures progressively get warmer, the life cycle of the tree could cease to exist. Soon trees will not be able to withstand the increased temperature and will die out, until only a desert planet exists.

With regard to the color of trees, the observation that tree color in the fall season is more muted is backed up with the science of tree leaves. Trees use the lack of nitrogen to maintain the red color in the fall, but “in a future high nitrogen world, trees will be less stressed, and as a result, perhaps less red too.” Some environmental factors, including acidity of soil, could disrupt this change. However, it seems the latter is already taking place. 

Leaves play an integral part in our atmosphere. Not only do they provide oxygen but they also reflect light from the atmosphere, which drives the climate of the planet. The Yale Environmental Review quoting research led by Dr. Christopher Doughty, an assistant professor in ecoinformatics at Northern Arizona University, stated, warmer temperatures may actually make leaves darker in color so that they reflect less light. Leaves are entering into a dangerous feedback cycle, where warm temperatures force plants to build less reflective leaves that then trap heat and warm the world even more.” So not only can warm temperatures affect the leaves themselves, but the leaves can affect the atmospheric temperature due to these warm conditions. 

It cannot be stressed enough that our planet is reacting to our actions. If we do not take strong actions, including limiting our pollution emission from both power plants and vehicles alike, our Earth will no longer be able to support us. This is a crisis, and it cannot be stressed enough that actions must be taken to ensure our future! 

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