Map Shows Where And When Fall Colors Peak In North Carolina

Sep 19, 2014

What weekend should you go to Grandfather Mountain in western North Carolina to see the fall colors at the peak of perfection? There's a map that was created by scientists at Appalachian State that attempts to answer that very question.

Credit Dr. Howard Neufeld, Michael Denslow / Appalachian State

The map was created by Dr. Howard Neufeld and Michael Denslow. At the time of the map's creation, they worked in the Biology department at Appalachian State University. (Denslow has since left the university to work on an NSF-funded project to monitor environmental change through the decades.) The map, the men say, is different from other maps that attempt to estimate when fall colors will be at their most glorious. Most maps use elevation alone. But this map calculates both elevation and latitude. They wrote about the project for their website:

We constructed the map using the following assumptions. First, we assumed that fall color would start earlier at higher elevations. We then figured (guessed!) that for each 1,000' increase in elevation, peak fall colors would occur about one week earlier, with the exception of those areas near the coast, where we divided the elevation into 500' sections.

For the latitude effect, we used data from published papers suggesting that each degree of latitude north is equivalent to going up in elevation by about 200 m (656'). This means that if you were to compare 3,000' down in Murphy with 3,000' in northern Ashe County (which are about 2.5 degrees apart), it would be as if you were really at 4,640' in Ashe County, at least fall color peak-wise. In other words, the same elevation in the north is cooler than the same elevation in the south, which causes the vegetation to differ. The resultant cooler temperatures mean that peak fall colors will come earlier to those same elevations in the north than in the south.

Thus, our map is among the first to take both elevation and latitude into consideration.

The men welcome your feedback. They hope to use such feedback to refine the map.

Here are some beautiful pictures, taken by photographer Jim Dollar, of fall foliage around the state:

Cypress stand, Robeson County, NC. November, 2005
Credit Jim Dollar / Flickr/Creative Commons

Nantahala National Forest, near Highlands, NC. October 19, 2010
Credit Jim Dollar / Flickr/Creative Commons

Greensboro, NC. November 11, 2010
Credit Jim Dollar / Flickr/Creative Commons

Traveling? Here's a map that tracks the 2014 fall foliage season across the nation.