Leaf Data, In Your Family Albums

4:39 minutes

Fall foliage
Fall foliage in Acadia National Park in 2016.
Credit: Tony Webster/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

state of science icon

This segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by Heather Goldstone & Elsa Partan originally appeared on WCAI Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands.

Leaf-peeping, or tourism based on observing the colors of fall foliage, is a big industry in parts of the Northeast. So as leaves continue to change across the northern United States with the turning of the seasons, researchers are working to better understand how climate change may be affecting fall colors—changes that may affect the bottom line for those tourism-rich areas. But to tease out the factors involved with the timing of peak leaf color, the researchers need data on when leaves started to change color, when they arrive at their peak color, and when the leaf-peeping season ends. Unfortunately, satellite imagery showing leaf color is only available dating back to the year 2000—and so Stephanie Spera of the University of Richmond is trying to get data in some unconventional ways. 

Spera and colleagues are engaging in a massive citizen-science project, asking for tourist snapshots of Acadia National Park that show the colors of fall. While they’ll accept your cellphone selfies, they’re especially interested in older, pre-digital images—the sort of vacation pictures that might be in your family albums, or in shoe boxes in an elderly relative’s attic.  Adding those images to their data set, she says, will both help them to validate the satellite data and to extend the boundaries of their data set outwards.

Heather Goldstone, host and executive producer of Living Lab Radio on WCAI, joins Ira to talk about the project and how listeners can participate. 

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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s time to check in on the state of science.



ANNOUNCER 3: St. Louis Public Radio–

ANNOUNCER 4: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Fall is busting out all over. The rich pastel of red, yellow, brown colors spark long Sunday drives into the country. Fall foliage is a big industry in the Northeast. So researchers are working to better understand how climate change may be affecting fall colors, changes that may affect the bottom line for those tourism-rich areas.

But to tease out the factors involved with the timing of peak leaf color, the researchers need data. Joining me to talk about one innovative way they’re collecting that data is Heather Goldstone, executive producer and host of Living Lab Radio. She’s based at WCAI in Woods Hole. Welcome to Science Friday.

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: I’m excited to be with you, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: How is the leaf season going?

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Well, it looks pretty good where I am. That’s just one indication. But it’s been an interesting fall– temperature dropped last night. We’re getting our first taste of winter here. And at least on Cape Cod, southern New England, some of the leaves are starting to fall off. It’s been a pretty beautiful fall.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s good for the tourism industry, right?

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Yeah, leaf peeping, as you noted, is a billion-dollar industry in New England. So when we talk about the impacts of climate change on this tourism, on changes in fall foliage, it’s maybe not the untold suffering that 11,000 scientists were warning about in that climate emergency declaration you mentioned a few minutes ago. But it does have pretty huge potential ramifications in an economic sense.

IRA FLATOW: Hmm. Researchers understand the mechanism for the color change. But the cues that they’re using to start the process are a little murkier. You spoke to a researcher named Stephanie Spera.

STEPHANIE SPERA: The two cues that trees get to stop really making that green chlorophyll is day length and temperature. And once those cues become un-synced, one could imagine, with temperature increasing, we don’t actually know what’s going to happen on the broader level with fall foliage. So there’s a lot of different variables that we’re going to try and disentangle at a very broad scale, because we’re looking at Acadia National Park as a whole.

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Yeah, so Stephanie Spera is an assistant professor at the University of Richmond. But she’s a New England native really interested in how climate change is playing out in New England. And as she said there, they’re trying to untangle all of these things. They’re looking at temperature, at precipitation records over time. They’ve actually had researchers out in Acadia National Park, where they’re really focusing, up in Maine this fall, asking people if the quality of fall foliage is something they even consider in making their decisions, because fall visitation to Acadia National Park has actually doubled since the 1990s.


HEATHER GOLDSTONE: So they want to know if that’s part of their decision. And then in the middle of that is the actual fall foliage piece, connecting changes in climate to changes in tourism. They’re trying to figure out if fall foliage has changed. And that’s where people’s photos come in.

IRA FLATOW: So tell us about– you have a piece where– she’s asking people to send in old photos?

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Yeah. Well, because one thing they’ve been looking at is satellite data, right? That gives them a really consistent record, since about 2000, of being able to look at fall foliage from space. But that only gets them back to 2000. And they want to be able to go back a lot farther than that and start to really piece together a longer trend, because, of course, fall foliage can vary from year to year hugely. So for that, that’s where they’re turning to their “leaf peep for science” crowd-sourcing mechanism, just asking anybody who’s been to Acadia National Park to send in their photos of fall foliage.

IRA FLATOW: Because everybody’s got shoe boxes full of old photos–


When we used to have them printed out, back in the day, right? How do people participate in this?

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Well, so most people are participating, I think, at this point, through social media. You can find “leaf peep for science” or “ANP– for Acadia National Park– fall foliage” on Instagram. And people are just sending photos digitally. That’s easy for the pictures from the cell phone era.


HEATHER GOLDSTONE: But as you mentioned, it would great– they would love to go further back. And in fact, one of the things she and I talked about is some of the challenges. At least when you’ve got satellite data, that’s consistent. You know how that photo was taken, what the settings were– that color looks the same across all those photos. But they’re going to have some work cut out for them, trying to figure out everybody’s photos from decades past.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, help them out. We have a link on our website if you want to help send in those photos. Thank you, Heather.

HEATHER GOLDSTONE: Yeah, my pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: Heather Goldstone, executive producer and host of Living Lab Radio at WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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