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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Conservation will begin online fall color updates this month to help residents find ideal locations to view the trees’ seasonal transitions.

Because predicting the pigment changes can be difficult, the department seeks to assist nature lovers in finding fall foliage, something experts say may become trickier as climate change worsens.

“We had droughty conditions over the summer, which could cause trees to lose their leaves early or begin changing colors earlier than normal,” Russell Hinnah, MDC forestry field programs supervisor, said in a press release. “This may affect the amount of fall color we see later in the season.”

How climate change impacts fall

Local conservationists fear this year’s long, dry summer will be followed by a brief autumn.

“It (climate change) is going to shift everything,” Wendy Sangster, MDC community conservation planner, said in a phone call.

Jackson County, Missouri experienced its 38th-driest August on record, according to data from the National Integrated Drought Information System. The entirety of Jackson County recorded abnormally dry conditions that stunt crop and pasture growth, increases the risk of wildfires, and causes river levels to decline. 

Across the state line, National Integrated Drought Information System data provided last week shows this August ranked seventh for driest August recorded over the past 128 years in Kansas. Last month also ranked 33rd for driest August recorded in Wyandotte County, Kansas.

Because trees rely heavily on chilly evenings to stunt photosynthesis and trigger color changes, the hotter and longer the summer, the greater the risk to the autumn season.

Sangster said this year’s drought may cause trees to drop their leaves prematurely, making it difficult for residents to enjoy the pleasing display of colors autumn offers. 

Another concern conservationists have is if the climate does not provide trees with the means to properly transition from summer to winter, they might now grow as often here and will flourish in other regions more suitable for their transformations. 

“As the days get shorter, that’s what triggers the fall color,” Sangster said in a phone call. “Trees will move out of our range if the climate cannot accommodate their needs.”

When will the leaves start changing?

The peak of fall color in Missouri is typically mid-October, according to the department’s website, while most leaves have already fallen come mid-November. 

“The (fall color) reports begin around mid-September and are updated weekly,” Hinnah said in the press release. “They show users where trees are beginning to turn and also suggest best places to see the changing leaves.”

The Kansas City region has yet to see enough color change in the leaves to report on, but the transformation is expected to begin any day now.

“The first trees to turn are sumacs, dogwoods and even poison ivy,” Sangster said in a phone call. “Those will change first in splashes of red.”

“Then, you have your maples and walnuts (trees), and those turn yellow. Sugar maples will turn a bright orange, while sweet gums are kind of burgundy yellow.”

Sangster said oak trees are the last to turn, remaining green for a long time and then abruptly turning reddish-brown around mid-October. 

“Cool nights cause the breakdown of green pigments, allowing the fall colors to show through,” Hinnah said in the press release.

He said seasonal leaf transformation is dependent on cool evenings to stunt photosynthesis and trap sugars inside leaves.

“Those sugars are the building blocks for the rich red, yellow, orange, and purple pigments,” he said in the press release.

For fall color updates, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website. Fall forecast reports are updated weekly, usually every Thursday evening.