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Golden larch trees line a trail in the mountains of Kananaskis Country

Is Mother Nature Playing a Joke? Weather Shenanigans or Autumn Enthusiasm?

Larches are displaying autumn colours early, with experts pointing to climate change and wildfires as culprits

Are you concerned about the crazy weather lately? Hail storms, drought, wildfires, heat domes, and floods.

Well, even the trees are telling us something unusual is happening this year.

At least in Kananaskis Country.

Usually, larch trees in the alpine signal the arrival of autumn by turning from green to gold, But this year, the golden hues have started much earlier than usual. 

Typically, the golden larch season spans from mid-September to early October. However, this year, many observers have reported that the larches are turning golden way ahead of schedule, with some trees changing colour in mid-August!

The Causes of the Golden Hues

Experts, such as Michael Roycroft, Kananaskis Regional Director with Alberta Parks, believe this early colour shift is due to hot, dry conditions and wildfire smoke.

Gerard Fournier, an expert arborist and instructor at Olds College, sheds some light on the phenomenon. 

Drought stress is a primary factor causing early fall colours. When trees lack moisture, they initiate a process where chlorophyll is converted back into sugar. This unmasks other pigments, resulting in the glorious golden shades we see in larches.

This isn’t just about drought, though. Heat stress from warmer-than-average temperatures and the pervasive wildfire smoke also play significant roles. 

The Bow Valley had a record-breaking number of high-temperature days this summer. To compound matters, rainfall was notably less than average, and wildfires raged, making this Canada’s worst fire season on record. 

Calgary broke its record for the most hours of smoke cover, mainly due to wildfires. These smoke conditions affect trees’ ability to photosynthesize, as pointed out by Fournier. 

But, the larch is resilient. Despite being sensitive to the changing climate, it’s a highly adaptable species that has endured for millennia. A larch tree in Kananaskis is believed to be Canada’s oldest tree, clocking in at roughly 1,950 years.

Another interesting tidbit from Fournier is that warmer weather in early spring kickstarted the growing season earlier for trees, including larches. 

He noted that some trees began to leaf out as early as the end of April. If weather patterns remain cool (but above freezing) in the coming months, the golden larch season might extend longer than normal, much to the delight of nature enthusiasts.

Where to See Golden Larch?

The early colour shift has meant more visitors are flocking to witness the colour spectacle.

In Kananaskis, the best places to see impressive displays of golden colours are Buller Pass Trail, Burstall Pass Trail, Chester Lake, Centennial Ridge going to Mount Allen, and Rummel Lake Trailhead.

But Kananaskis isn’t the only larch hotspot. 

Larch Trees from the Saddleback Trail, Banff National Park. Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

The best spot in the province is Larch Valley Trail in Banff National Park near Moraine Lake, but remember, you will have to book a shuttle or ride a bike to get to the trailhead as personal vehicles are not allowed on Moraine Lake Road.

Other spots in Banff National Park that are great for larch colours are Sunshine Meadows and the Saddleback Mountain Hike

With the surge in visitation, Alberta Parks and Parks Canada is bracing for a hectic fall hiking season.

Efforts are in place to manage the increased number of visitors, from public transportation solutions to possibly adjusting speed limits on key highways during the larch season. 

Banff has already seen closures this season due to traffic jams

David Bird, a biologist at Mount Royal University, cautions about the broader implications of these early changes in the larches. He points to studies suggesting that climate change is altering the distribution of these trees. With ongoing warming, larches may find their habitats shifting northward to higher altitudes.

While the golden larches offer a breathtaking sight, they also stand as a testament to the profound ways our planet is changing.

Larch Valley, Banff National Park. Darwin Wiggett | oopoomoo

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