For a few short weeks, every year, the mountains of Western North Carolina are renowned for their bright autumn leaves. The generations have brought to the region countless so-called “leaf-lookers” enthralled by their fiery shades of yellow and red come mid-October. Even this year, when area biologists are expecting fall leaves to be duller, and less-vibrant, all local economists can see on the horizon is the color of money for the mountains.
“This season is continuing the trend of the last few years. The climate's warming." Doctor Beverly Collins gives her forecast for the 2016 leaf season: "While we can predict that the colors are probably going to peak around the third week in October, what we can't predict is how much they will turn together. The colors may not be as bright this year, and I think the season may start a little early and last a little longer, so I think it might a little more prolonged."
Dr. Collins has been teaching biology at Western Carolina University for the last ten years, and says that while climate change has been especially slow to take hold here in the mountains, its effects can be seen in the less than typical leaf seasons like this year's. Of course, Collins has her detractors as well.
"Some people think perhaps because we had a dry summer that the colors may be brighter because dry weather can often bring out bright colors, especially reds."
At the end of the day, the forecast of fall leaf color is no easy task.
"We have to balance in forecasting when the colors are going to appear, when the peak's going to appear, and how long they're going to last, how bright the colors are, we have to balance all of those things, that makes forecasting the color hard."
Across the quad at Western, Tourism and Hospitality Professor Steve Morse is researching the impact this year’s leaf season will have on the region’s economy.
“It’s the October-November fall foliage phenomenon. It’s a tradition. Even back when kids got into the station wagon with mom and dad in the 60's and 70's to the Smokies to see the leaves change. It’s a generational thing. Passed over to the next gen. Now they’re coming to the spending two or three nights in cabins during that time period.. all those activities weren’t available before. Fall foliage is driving this part of the economy.”
And despite the region’s gas shortage, Dr. Morse is calling for a record turnout in the mountains."I expect one of the strongest Octobers ever. I’ll tell you why; gas is at a twelve year low, and this is a drive-to destination," he says.
Last year’s study found that over 400,000 hotel room nights were sold throughout Western North Carolina in October. This year, that number has so far increased, according to Morse’s study—a continued trend from previous years. For instance, Macon, Graham, Cherokee and Clay Counties have seen a 4.5 percent increase in tourism spending from last year, a 4.1 percent increase for Jackson, Haywood, Swain and Transylvania Counties, and a 3.8 percent increase for Buncombe and Henderson Counties.
The study also finds that hotels are overwhelmingly booked more on the weekends during the month of October, than during weekdays, suggesting shorter tourism stays during the fall season than in the summer.
"All those activities weren't available before. But now when [tourists] come, instead of drive through and go back home, they drive up here, spend a couple nights, spend a lot of money, employ a lot of people, put a lot of local taxes to work, and the fall foliage is driving that part of this economy."
In the end, while tourists nonetheless come from all around to the mountains for their fall leaves, climate change will have an impact on future leaf seasons. But that’s no reason leaf lovers shouldn’t enjoy them, she explains, recommending that they be mindful of both the weather, as well as elevation, because both of these factors can also impact the types of leaves that will change, as well as their vibrancy and colors.