Fall foliage draws leaf peepers to Hanover

by Abby Mihaly | 10/26/17 2:15am

102617leafpeeping_carolynsilverstein

Hanover and surrounding areas are currently experiencing peak foliage.

by Carolyn Silverstein / The Dartmouth

As the days finally begin to get colder, the leaves are changing color, drawing what Northeasterners call “leaf peepers” — tourists who travel to the area to admire fall foliage.

Leaf peeping is important to local businesses, wrote New Hampshire division of travel and tourism director Victoria Cimino in an email statement.

This fall, the state expects 9.75 million visitors, a 4 percent increase over 2016, Cimino wrote. Those visitors are anticipated to spend $1.5 billion, a 5 percent increase from 2016. According to Visit New Hampshire’s foliage tracker, Hanover and surrounding areas are currently at “peak” foliage, which will fade in the coming days.

Molly’s Restaurant assistant manager Jen Lafreniere said leaf peepers come from all over the continent.

“A ton of bus tours that come down from Canada, that come down from Maine, they come up from South Carolina and Tennessee, we get a ton of different people from the South that come and just bombard us,” she said.

Environmental studies research associate David Lutz explained that foliage is a product of three classes of pigments in plant leaves. Chlorophyll is the main pigment for photosynthesis and the predominant reason plants are green. Chlorophyll production and synthesis, however, spend a lot of the plant’s energy.

“Plants generally are very careful about their chlorophyll levels because chlorophyll is an energetically expensive molecule to produce,” Lutz said.

For this reason, plants reabsorb these nutrients at the end of each season, losing their green color and revealing the yellow, orange and red pigments in the leaves, he added.

Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery general manager Craig Morley said that Lou’s depends on tourists who come to the northeast to see these colors for business.

“We do rely on them, and it is a big part of the business,” he said. “Because you end summer … and you hit a lull for a couple of weeks there, and then you look forward to foliage because it definitely brings the tourists out … Tourists are what makes it work for us.”

Hanover Inn general manager Keith Wagner said this year, leaf colors have been more muted than in past years.

“From the leaf perspective, they don’t have the same [vibrancy] that they did last year,” he said.

Lutz echoed Wagner’s observations, explaining that the pattern of colors this year was varied, and the season was also longer.

“This is definitely a very interesting season ... It started out somewhat muted, and you’re seeing a lot of early leaf drop, but you’re seeing a lot of extension [of the season],” Lutz said.

Much of this has to do with warmer weather, Lutz said. He explained that plants need cold nights in order to trigger the senescence process through which chlorophyll exits the leaves.

This year, Lutz said that based on his records, the Upper Valley has experienced only a few cold nights, and even on those nights, temperatures have not dropped far below freezing. He explained that this produces a slower and more prolonged foliage season because each plant is triggered at a different time and rate than those around it.

Cold nights are what trigger abrupt changes in foliage all at once, according to Lutz.

“You really need multiple pretty cool nights to have it really impact the whole canopy,” he said.

Lutz added that rainfall also influences leaf color. Anthocyanins — responsible for the vibrant red color in leaves — prevent damage to cells and cellular systems. As a result, the red color is more prevalent when the plant is experiencing stress, such as during last year’s drought.

Wagner said that tourists still enjoy traveling to the region during fall regardless of whether or not the colors are especially vibrant.

“People still love it ... It still smells like fall and it feels like fall, even though it’s warmer,” he said.

In fact, Wagner said that warm weather might have encouraged people to visit Hanover.

Morley said that tourism has held steady this season despite less-than-vibrant colors.

“It’s been a good season,” he said. “As dismal as the colors have been, the tourists have still come out.”

Lafreniere said that the College is an important draw for tourists even when foliage is not as colorful as usual.

“Just because of the campus itself bringing so many students and people coming to do tours, we get a lot of people and families from that,” Lafreniere said. “And this time of the year is perfect because they get to see just what quintessential Hanover looks like in the fall.”

Lafreniere said that Dartmouth’s Homecoming weekend is especially important for business. On each of Homecoming weekend’s three days, Molly’s saw 1,200 guests, many visiting to see the football game or attend the bonfire.

While climate scientists aren’t certain of what the future holds for foliage, Lutz said that the season may evolve amid changing rainfall totals and temperatures.

“If its tending to get warmer and wetter in New Hampshire ­— and that is what some of the downscale climate models suggest [is happening] — you could imagine that we may not see quite that vibrant display from the drought stress that we saw before,” Lutz said.

On the other hand, he said that the possibility of decreasing rainfall totals might make future foliage seasons more colorful.

Lutz noted that according to a study performed by Andrew Richardson of North Arizona University, the foliage season will likely lengthen, although researchers don’t yet know how a longer or less vibrant season would affect tourism.

Cimino said that tourism revenue tends to increase each year.

“A primary indicator of visitor activity in the state is rooms and meals tax revenue,” she wrote. “Historically this has shown increases between 5 to 7 percent year-over-year.”

Lutz explained that a shorter winters have encouraged some businesses, such as ski resorts, to cater to fall tourists.

“A lot of the resorts, because they’re dealing with less snow and shorter skiing seasons, are looking towards non-winter visits as an important stabilizing source of income. So what you’re starting to see these ski mountains do is do foliage tours up the skiways,” Lutz said.

At least for the time being, Hanover’s local businesses may be fairly secure, Lafreniere said.

“It doesn’t [have to do with how vibrant the colors are] ... People will come up anyways,” she said. “People just like to see what we do in the fall, even just the color change itself, whether it’s yellow, muted or super bright, they don’t care. They’re here to see it.”