By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
Each year, I look forward to colorful fall foliage. Autumn is one of my favorite times of year for landscape and nature photography. Temperatures are pleasant, mosquitos and gnats are mostly gone, and trees are a riot of color. If, that is, I time it right. That’s why, for the past few years, I’ve used the Fall Foliage Prediction Map, an interactive map showing the predicted progress of fall color across the United States. I’ve written about it before but, until now, had never looked behind the scenes to see how the map and the predictions are created. Come with me behind the curtain and meet David Angotti, the map’s creator.
About the map
The Fall Foliage Prediction Map is based on an algorithm that uses several million data points to create a county-by-county, week-by-week forecast of leaf color. As Angotti tells it, the map started out, in 2013, as just a “fun project” but rapidly became a “go to” source for fall color predictions. Want to see where peak color will be next week? You can do that. Have some vacation time the first week of October and want to know where color should be peaking? The map has that, too.
The millions of data points come from NOAA historical data on temperatures and precipitation, forecast temperatures and precipitation, historical data on past leaf peaks, past years’ models and data, average daylight exposure, elevation, and more. According to Angotti, crunching all that data results in “nearly 50,000 data outputs indicating the progressing of fall for every county, in a graphical presentation that is easy to digest.”
When you go to the map, it’s set for the current week. Use the slider under the map to see the progression of color over time. Or pick the week you plan to travel and see where peak color should be.
If you’re curious about the science behind why leaves change color, there is a section on that, too.
How useful is it?
My own experience has been that the map has been pretty accurate in predicting peak fall color in the mid-Atlantic region, where I live. Like any long term weather forecast, peak color predictions “will never be 100 percent accurate,” Angotti says. “However, after publishing our predictive fall foliage map for nearly a decade, we are quite confident in our data sources, process, and algorithm. Our experience combined with a scheduled mid-season update has us especially confident about this year’s predictions.” This is the first year that the map will be updated, in late September, with additional timely data that will increase the accuracy of the predictions.
As one might imagine, photographers aren’t the only ones using the Fall Foliage Prediction Map. Tourists and nature lovers seeking peak foliage also use it. But it might surprise you to know some of the more unusual uses to which the map has been put. Among Angotti’s favorites are a bride who changed the date of her outdoor wedding to coincide with peak color and a director scheduling a movie location shoot based on the map.
Who is behind it?
The Fall Foliage Prediction Map was created as a joint effort between David Angotti and Wes Melton. Angotti is the co-founder of SmokyMountains.com. a travel brand promoting the Smoky Mountains region, luxury cabin and vacation rentals, and tourism while Melton is a high-level software-engineer who focuses on data. Angotti, a “serial entrepreneur,” a statistical expert, and pilot has a passion for weather and statistics. He had to understand weather patterns and meteorological tools to fly safely and has been interested in weather, travel, and technology for a long time.
The map was originally developed to enhance the vacation experience of visitors to the region. “Our destination (the Smoky Mountains region) gets TONS of fall visitors each year and people would regularly call asking the best time to see the leaves—this is how the leaf map was born. Instead of just relying on our gut, we decided to develop the programmatic process of figuring out when leaves would peak,” Angotti said. “Once we had the process figured out, we decided to just roll it out nationwide.”
What’s new in 2021?
As mentioned, this will be the first year that the predictions will be updated mid-season with more recent data, which should improve accuracy. In addition, a list of the top fall leaf-peeping sites in all 50 states has been included. “Each year, our customer service team fields hundreds of questions about where to view fall foliage,” Angotti says. “This year we are releasing a vetted list of the top places to view fall foliage in all 50 states. The list, which identifies well over 100 fall viewing spots, is sure to be a valuable resource for leaf peepers!” I looked at the list for states near me and saw some of the old, familiar places you’d expect on a “best of” list, like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, but also some unexpected entries, like the Turkey Point Lighthouse and Adkins Arboretum in eastern Maryland. I guess I’ll be making some short road trips to check them out in a couple of weeks.
The Fall Foliage Prediction Map is one of my primary planning tools for photographing fall color. I use it for planning trips and reserving camp sites in advance. But it’s not the only one. I’ll also check the websites of the parks and forests I’ll be visiting. Often, they’ll have either live webcams or periodic updates on color. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has previously done regular fall foliage reports in a weekly e-newsletter. Other states have similar reports.
Nothing’s perfect and even the best laid plans sometimes go awry. Last year, I planned carefully and spent a few October days in Shenandoah during peak color but ran into the very rainy remnants of Hurricane Delta. (No sweeping, panoramic vistas of gorgeous color through the wind and rain, but at least the waterfalls were cooking!) Some years, the colors will be pale and flat, or a cold snap or heat wave will change peak timing at the last minute. But, hey, whoever said nature photography was easy? And a day outside with my camera still beats sitting at a desk looking at a screen.
Frank Gallagher is a landscape and nature photographer based in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in providing a wide range of photograph services to nonprofit organizations. He manages NANPA’s blog.