Stunning autumn foliage starts to emerge in southeastern US despite Florence, Michael impacts

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
October 23, 2018, 11:43:44 AM EDT

Parts of the southeastern United States, particularly the Carolinas, were ravaged by Hurricane Florence and then by Hurricane Michael.

There were concerns that these storms may have a negative impact on fall foliage in the region, as Hurricane Irma battered parts of the region in 2017 and resulted in poor autumn colors.

However, projections for a vibrant fall color season still remain bright.

Irma reached the area after leaves had already begun to turn due to residual stress from a 2016 drought and the storm blew many of the changed leaves off trees with its strong winds, but this year’s tropical storms did not hit the region when the leaves were loose.

Asheville delayed fall colors 10-12-2018

Signs of the colors starting to change in Asheville, North Carolina, on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. (www,

Clemson University Forest Ecologist Don Hagan has studied the foliage in the southern Appalachians the last seven years. The southern Appalachians are home to several national parks and key spots for leaf peepers.

“We got some rain from Florence, but it wasn’t what it could have been. It wasn’t tremendous rainfall,” Hagan said.

The biggest issue with a hurricane at this time of year is not the rainfall but rather the wind, which can knock the leaves from the trees. Heavy winds when the leaves are starting to get loose can potentially knock some leaves off.

"We actually were pretty lucky with Hurricane Florence and with Hurricane Michael, we didn’t get the same intensity of wind that we got with Hurricane Irma last year," Hagan said.

At higher elevations, which are more exposed to wind, some leaves have blown off due to wind from the storms. For example, Yellow Buckeye is notorious for the leaves falling apart in the wind.

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"By and large, we really dodged a bullet with the hurricanes. Yeah, you can go up there and see some leaves have fallen off, but they are mostly still intact," Hagan said.

The Southeast has not experienced many days with fall-like weather, the region experienced warm, summerlike weather into mid-October. Therefore, the changing of the colors has been delayed, more so than previously anticipated.

Warm, summerlike weather encourages plants to hold on to their leaves for a little bit longer.

"I predicted there would be a late start, but I think it’s even more delayed than I initially expected. Even at the highest elevations, where colors would’ve peaked a week ago, haven’t peaked yet," Hagan said on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

Despite the delay, Hagan still recommends leaf peepers and tourists to visit the mountains this season. While the changing of the colors is delayed due to the warm, wet weather, Hagan projects that this will still be a good season for autumn colors.

"The exciting thing is that most of the fall color season is still ahead of us, which is crazy that I am saying that today," Hagan said on Tuesday, Oct. 16.

asheville foliage delayed 10-2018


A transition into a fall-like weather pattern would help encourage the leaves to change.

"If we have a mild transition into fall with no major freezing event, no more hurricanes, then I think that fall color development will come along nicely," Hagan said.

Autumn foliage is typically patchy, and there are always some areas that are better than others. Some areas were likely impacted by the hurricanes more so than others.

"I think we’re going to see that changing pretty quickly in the coming days, I think this weekend (of Oct. 20 and Oct. 21) in particular, if we get some nice, clear weather, could be the first nice weekend that we’ve had here in the southern Appalachians at higher elevations," Hagan said.

Fall tourist spots, such as Asheville, North Carolina, and the Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, reported that they started to see the colors change at higher elevations the weekend of Friday, Oct. 19.

On Sunday, Oct. 21, updated its fall forecast, saying "Great news! Fall weather is finally here and the delayed colors are starting to finally show - but muted."

According to the update, the color is best above the 4,000-foot elevation on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Many sections of the Parkway will peak over the next 10 days.

"Lower mountains are still mostly green thanks to record heat in September and October. Colors are running about 2 weeks behind 'schedule'. Many trees along the highest ridges above 4,500 feet lost their leaves (especially after very high winds last night), and color is definitely not as brilliant this year," the post reads. "But our scenery is gorgeous!"

On Friday, the Smoky Mountains Twitter account shared a picture of the leaves starting to change at higher elevations.

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