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Leaves of Change

By Calissa Treat

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autumn-leaves-tree-trunk-4625Changing leaves, is the number one sign that autumn is here.

Besides the fact that the leaves probably want to pack up and head out before layers of snow blanket them, there are other reasons why the leaves change color. There are three types of pigments that are involved with the leaves changing in autumn. There is chlorophyll, which is what causes leaves to normally have a green color to them, carotenoid which helps produce the yellow, orange, and brown colors that the leaves change to, and anthocyanin, which helps produce other colors in the leaves as the seasons change. The reason that chlorophyll goes away, or rather dies off, is because once the nights begin to become longer, chlorophyll production decreases. It continues to decrease until it finally disappears. This is when carotenoids and anthocyanins reveal themselves and show off their fallish-hues.

The extent and brightness of the colors that develop in autumn are related to the weather before and after the chlorophyll decreases. So a lot of it depends on how warm of a summer there was, or how harsh of a winter there will be. Therefore, temperature and moisture are the two main influences. Even the amount of moisture in the soil affects the colors of the leaves. A late spring or severe summer drought, can delay the changing of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during autumn will also decrease the color in the leaves. A warm, wet spring, nice summer weather, and sunny fall days with cool nights usually produce the most vibrant autumn colors. The trees do not shed a tear over losing their leaves; instead they celebrate as it is vital to their survival. Stems, twigs and buds are made to survive extreme cold so that when spring comes they can awaken, healthy and strong. Leaves on the other hand are tender and would freeze in the winter. So the trees must protect themselves and dispose of the leaves.

So what happens to the leaves once they fall? Are they left to just be crumbled beneath our boots? No need to worry, the leaves that fall from the trees are not wasted. The leaves decompose and restock the soil with nutrients that help make up the forest floor which absorbs rainfall. Fallen leaves also become food for many tiny, soil organisms which contributes to the circle of life. So next time a golden leaf flutters to the ground or a green leave begins to fade to red, remember that it is not just a coincidence taking place right before your eyes. Instead, you are witnessing life.