Out There: The Return of the Crisp

The view from Storm King; are we in for a “classic fall” this year? Photo by B. Cronin

The view from Storm King; are we in for a “classic fall” this year? (Photo by B. Cronin)

We are sometimes accused here at The Current of not printing enough good news. While I don’t think it’s our job to provide comfort and happy assurances — that’s what diners are for — I can offer this one bit of glad tidings: I am wearing a sweater, and it’s quite possible that you are, as well.

After three consecutive sweltering Octobers, including last year’s humid, mosquito-laden dystopia, this year’s October is already cooler than normal, and that’s before you take into account the arctic cold front that’s due to arrive this weekend. Of course, because of human-caused climate change, “normal” is a slippery term these days. The majority of the last dozen Octobers have been warmer than “normal,” so this current “colder” October probably feels “normal” to those of us who are old enough to remember what dial-up internet sounded like. 

It’s especially welcome after a brutally hot and dangerously dry summer. Measurements taken at the Hudson Valley Regional Airport in Wappingers Falls reveal that we just got through the hottest August and second-driest summer ever recorded. None of that should surprise those of you who spent the summer watching your lawns turn straw-yellow or the ever-widening patches of brown spread across the mountains. 

Another bit of good news, then: Just as lawns quickly reverted to green once the rain came in September, the majority of the brown trees on the mountains aren’t dead. They went dormant due to the stress of the drought, shutting down early so that they can make it through the winter. Most of them should bud in the spring, unless they were already in rough shape before the drought. Stressed trees are more vulnerable to insects such as the emerald ash borer, which means that the drought may prove to be a death blow for the majority of the remaining ash trees. 

I was once told that, in summers of drought, the transition to fall foliage is early, fast and bland. The trees go from green to brown to bare. This is what I noticed last weekend while driving to the Finger Lakes. Everything between the Catskills and Ithaca was green on Friday and pale 48 hours later. I saw the same thing a few days later in northern Dutchess County: The leaves were turning, but the colors were flat. 

Will that happen here? With the Highlands’ microclimates, the rain earlier in the week and a cold front moving in, it’s hard to say. The stress of the drought may lead to trees turning dull yellow sooner, while the arctic air may provide a jolt to the anthocyanins that produce striking reds. But what about brilliant yellows, oranges, and reds at the same time? What about a normal fall?

There’s that word again. In a recent interview, climate researcher Peter Gleick suggested that we might need to stop thinking about normal.

“The climate is changing,” he said. “We’re not approaching a new, stable normal — a ‘new normal.’ Rather, we’re entering a period of rapid, unstable changes, and we’re not adequately prepared.”

He was talking about being physically prepared, but I can’t help but think that we’re not mentally prepared, either. 

My description for what’s going on these days isn’t global warming or climate change. It’s global weirding, a phrase attributed to environmentalist Hunter Lovins to convey the fact that things are becoming unpredictable. Several summers of deluges, as we’ve had here, give way to a summer of drought. Things are too hot, then too cold. Some species of plants and animals suddenly flourish, while others vanish. 

If you’re someone who finds comfort in what fall has looked and felt like, it’s time to adjust your expectations. Celebrate those victories of stability and familiarity when you can. I don’t know what the leaves will be doing this weekend, but I do know that it should feel like October. That’s worth celebrating with a long walk in a sweater and, if the colors of the leaves disappoint, a trip to the diner. 

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