Oct. 22 update: The fall foliage forecast still remains on track, though there is concern for the leaves to be more muted than vibrant.
The lack of cool nights has been concerning. The story published on Oct. 11 did take into account mild nights in the first half of October. However, they have lingered into the second half of the month as well. Only Oct. 19, Oct. 2 and Oct. 1 were below average in the low temperature department, with month to date lows more than six degrees above average.
These cool nights are essential, as they tell the trees to shed their summer greens for fall hues. If the nights stay above average into November, the leaves will change into dull and muted colors.
Warmer than average nights will be expected through Halloween. If they remain on the mild side past then, South Jersey may not have that banner year that was clearly possible a month ago. Here's a look at the current fall foliage conditions, thanks to the New Jersey Forest Service.
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New Jersey is on track for plenty of vibrant colors this fall foliage season, perhaps the best in years.
“With all of the moisture we’ve had, this could be a banner year,” said Dave Robinson, the New Jersey state climatologist and professor of geography at Rutgers University.
In South Jersey, residents say you do not have to go far to see the eye-popping colors on the trees. The roads around the region bring enough joy to some.
“I’m a big fan of the tree-covered roads, like Estell Manor Road that runs between Route 49 and Cape May County. Hesstown Road (in Estell Manor) as well,” said Jessica Webster, of Estell Manor.
Paul D’Amico, 57, of Ventnor, agrees with Webster that the roads are the best places to see the fall foliage in South Jersey.
“The drive up County Road 559 from Somers Point to Mays Landing. ... It’s just a beautiful road, and with the fall foliage is even nicer. I also enjoy riding up the (Atlantic City) Expressway, believe it or not,” D’Amico said.
But, that Sunday drive through the colorful trees that hug the roads will likely be delayed a week or two.
The pathway to the radiant yellow, orange and red leaves begins when the first, tiny green leaves sprout from the trees in the spring. Robinson and foresters say it is a three-step process to achieve the perfect fall foliage and 2021 is well on its way of hitting those three targets perfectly.
“The rainfall has been pretty perfect. Toward the end of the summer we had a lot of good rain that didn’t put us into a drought,” said Mike Zsoldos, assistant regional forester at the New Jersey Forest Service, part of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Ample rainfall during the summer is the first part of the ideal fall foliage equation. During the growing season, from April to August, wet conditions without excessive heat is preferred.
Then, from September to leaf change, sunny days and cool nights are needed. Typically, the change in leaf colors occurs between late October to early November in most of South Jersey, according to the New Jersey Forest Service.
Once the colors come, many don’t want it to go, especially as the sun goes down by 5 p.m. and cold air worthy of the winter jacket creeps in. To keep the color, the weather must be free of heavy rain, heavy snow and strong winds to keep the leaves on the trees until they turn brown and eventually die.
Between April to August, weather stations at Atlantic City International Airport and Estell Manor reported wetter than average conditions (Millville was below). While it was a warmer than average stretch of months, there was not much in the way of extremely hot temperatures. ACY had only two days at or above 95 degrees, with no record hot weather. Estell Manor had one, while Millville had none.
A great sign.
Once September came, sunny days have been common. From Sept. 1 to Oct. 6, 61% of days were classified as clear for ACY, according to the National Weather Service.
On the temperature side, the cool nights have been hard to come by in the Garden State. However, as long as cool nights arrive by the end of the month, it will only delay, not harm, the foliage.
September low temperatures were all above the 1991-2020 climate average at ACY, Estell Manor and Millville. Through Oct. 6, these critical October temperatures have all run well above average, with no sign of cool, crisp nights through the middle of the month.
“I think (fall foliage) is going to be a little late, because September was so warm, but the key right now is cool (temperatures). The sun is telling the trees to start slowing down ... but the atmosphere is telling the certain trees to start shutting down,” Robinson said.
September was one of only three months in South Jersey that reported a greater than one degree increase in average temperatures between the recently updated 30-year climate normals due to climate change. A warmer fall leads to later fall foliages.
When the time for leaf peeping does come, Zsoldos says the lakes and swamps in New Jersey State Forests will show the brightest colors in South Jersey, though his personal favorite is the white cedar swamp where it’s quiet and peaceful.
“You’ll have beautiful red maples... beautiful black gum that really shows great color,” Zsoldos said on a crisp, sunny afternoon near Lake Nummy in Belleplain State Forest.
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