CHARLESTON - Abnormally dry conditions, like southern West Virginia is experiencing, can influence whether nature's fall foliage fireworks are at their brightest or more of a dull dud, according to Barry Cook, director of the West Virginia Division of Forestry.
"When it's this dry, flow of water through the stems of the trees is less, which can cause the leaves to drop before they change color," Cook said. "They just change brown and fall off the trees."
The U.S. National Weather Service in Charleston's latest drought monitor shows abnormally dry and drought conditions that continue to expand throughout southern West Virginia.
"The next chance of measurable precipitation looks to be on Monday next week," the weather service said on its Facebook page. "Until then, warm and dry conditions continue."
Temperature, sunlight and soil moisture during the trees' growing season in the spring and summer all play a role in how the leaves will look in the fall, Cook says.
"The best weather for brilliant fall foliage is a growing season with ample moisture followed by a dry, cool and sunny autumn with warm days and cool but frostless nights," he said.
Normally, as autumn rolls around, a variety of cues - including the shortening days and falling temperatures - tell trees that it's time to begin shutting down for the winter and preserving their nutrients for the next growing season.
The trees stop producing the chlorophyll that makes their leaves green and is a key part of the photosynthesis that provides them with food. Left behind in the leaves of some tree species are carotenoids, which color the leaves orange and yellow. Red leaves, on the other hand, are colored by anthocyanins, produced only in the fall.
However, the abnormally dry conditions across southern West Virginia this summer has led to the earlier appearance of color in some areas, but later in others, depending on factors like the severity of the extremely dry weather and the particular species of trees affected.
"Yellow poplar changes first and is the most affected right now, then the sycamore trees are next, followed by maples and then oaks," Cook explained. "If we get a good soaking rain, we could have a good second half of the fall foliage season in West Virginia."
Cook said the very northern parts of West Virginia start to see color change beginning in mid-September and that progresses down the state through mid-October.
"By the end of October, the fall foliage season is pretty much done," he said.
Areas, vistas, scenic lookouts or other destinations within West Virginia that are known for their fall foliage displays include the New River Gorge, Grandview National Park, Hawks Nest State Park overlooks, Germany Valley near Canaan, Blackwater Falls State Park, Highland Scenic Highway in Pocahontas County, Cass Scenic Railroad State Park, Babcock State Park, Coopers Rock State Forest, Spruce Knob, which is the highest point in the state, Blennerhassett Island Historical State Park in Parkersburg, Potomac Eagle Train in Romney and The Durbin and Greenbrier Valley Railroad in Durbin and Elkins.
Other public events taking place during the fall foliage season include the West Virginia Pumpkin Festival in Milton, New River Gorge Bridge Day Festival in Fayetteville, Preston County Buckwheat Festival in Kingwood, West Virginia Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, Mountain State Forest Festival in Elkins, Apple Butter Festival in Berkeley Springs, Mountain State Apple Harvest Festival in Martinsburg and the Salem Apple Butter Festival in Salem.
Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.