The Science Behind Fall Color Change in Leaves

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We asked students at Corning Community College what their favorite part of fall was.

“My favorite part of fall is all of October, the apples, and the fact that it’s my birthday,” Maryah Wilber said.

“It’s when it starts to get cold,” Daniel McLaughlin said. “Soccer games and football games have always been one of my favorite times of the year.”

“The best part of fall for me definitely would be the leaves change,” Katelynn Russell said.

With the change of season comes the change of leaves on our trees, but why exactly is this? What is the science behind why we see these beautiful colors every fall?

“As nights start to lengthen, the plants are able to pick up on that cue,” Corning Community College Professor of Biology Robert Koble said. “So, during longer night periods the plant isn’t going to need to do photosynthesis as much, because there is less light. What they are going to do is lower the amount of chlorophyll that is in their leaves.”

Chlorophyll is the pigment that helps conduct photosynthesis. With less photosynthesis occurring, that is when we see all the vibrant colors start to show through.

“Each of them have different functions,” Koble said. “Usually the xanthophylls and the carotenoids, which are the yellows and the oranges, help with photosynthesis to try to gather more light for the plant. The anthocyanins are usually a protective for the plant.”

Rain in the spring and summer months help aid in the photosynthesis process. So, this summer’s drought will play a role in what kind of colors we are going to see this fall.

“The plant needs watering, and it needs sugar,” Koble said. “Part of photosynthesis is using water to make sugar. If there is not enough water then they can’t make enough sugar, which means they can’t make the pigments. So, since we had a drought this year, there is going to be less sugar, which means there will be less pigments in the leaves.”

For more information on when your peak fall foliage is in New York click here. For more information on when your peak fall foliage is in Pennsylvania click here.

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