November 4, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Lorelei Smillie
Fall in Colorado is a fickle, fleeting breeze which passes quickly over the trees and kisses them with shades of red and orange. The landscape burns brightly and intensely for a few weeks until the damp snow quenches the flames and turns the earth gray and white for several months.
Nowhere else does autumn come so swiftly and act with such vengeance. It’s the subject of all conversations prior to its arrival, during its playtime, and for wistful months afterwards. Many people think it lasts a few weeks and some even argue it’s only here for a few days.
The West calls people from other parts of the world to come see its gorgeous array of colors. Tourists will visit Colorado just to see natural attractions like the Maroon Bells or the Kebler Pass, spending time and money to see one of nature’s best displays.
Everyone agrees, however, that fall in Colorado is too short. Elevation plays a significant role: the higher the land, the shorter the season. Any trees above 8,500 feet change colors the fastest. At the highest altitudes, some trees only change colors for about a week before shedding their dazzling costumes.
The best conditions for autumn’s rainbow are bright sunlight and cool nights. The sunshine depletes the chlorophyll in the leaves, washing away the emerald green, and a chilly temperature will produce sugars that create those shades of red and purple.
Other conditions affect the transformation as well: the health of the tree, weather, moisture, and physical geography all play a role in the changing of the leaves.
A drier summer can also contribute to the change in the trees. When there’s less water in the soil, the leaves turn brown more quickly. This has been true for the past few years due to a warming climate. The Southwestern part of the United States is facing record levels of drought: the land is the driest it’s been in 1,200 years.
Many scientists have been arguing that drought is an insufficient word to categorize the general warming happening in the Southwest because of its severity. Since it is an overall trend, it cannot be classified as a temporary phenomenon anymore. The warming has created all kinds of problems, including a lack of resources for ranchers who depend on the water source to cultivate plants and agriculture. It also contributes to a reduced flow on the Colorado River, a source of drinking water for over 36 million people.
Hotter climates also contribute to wildfires, which have the capability to eradicate entire forests. Some trees actually need fire to reproduce, like some species of pines. Their cones are coated in a type of resin which needs a hot temperature to melt it open. Other species require chemical signals from smoke in order to sprout.
These species, however, do not exist in Colorado. The trees here are already dry and thirsty. Although the magic of fire can do a lot for many plants, it is an unwanted force in the Rockies.
People in Colorado remark at the brevity of fall and we can wistfully imagine a past world before climate change where autumn might have lasted a little bit longer.