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Gaylord — Autumn’s yearly color extravaganza is finally here, but you’d better hurry or you might miss it.

Andy Sullivan, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gaylord, has a simple explanation for Michigan’s later — and shorter — display this year.

“Blame it on the heat wave,” Sullivan said. “The heat wave we had in early September affected the color in a negative way. The heat stunted the colors and put the annual color show off by at least two weeks.”

As a result, “colors are muted and not as bright, with a lack of brilliant reds that we normally would see,” Sullivan said. And while temperatures have been mostly above normal this month, windy, cooler weather is expected next week, which should cause most of the leaves to fall, he said.

“It’s been a fairly disappointing season,” he said. “The color is not going to last very long this year.”

The leaves’ changing hues are a response to the decrease in daily sunshine as the days grow shorter, according to Julie Crick, a Michigan State Extension agent in Roscommon.

“Photosynthesis — the production of sugar in the leaves — slows down and leads to a reduction in chlorophyll, the pigment that supports photosynthesis and gives leaves their color, when daylight decreases,” she said.

“Good color follows warm days with plenty of sunshine and cool nights, which narrows the veins in leaves, trapping sugar. The more sugar, the better the color. The unusual warm and dry weather earlier this fall disrupted the process, leaving muted colors,” Crick said.

Visitors to forests in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are seeing similar conditions. Ranger Jeff Pingeo, of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore Visitor Center near Munising, said colors are somewhat dull and very sporadic.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from potential visitors, asking about the fall color and where to view it in the Upper Peninsula,” Pingeo said. “It’s been difficult to predict.”

In the Petoskey area, Alexis Denoyer of the Petoskey Regional Chamber of Commerce predicted colors at about 70 percent this weekend.

“This weekend could be it,” said Denoyer. “The warm weather put everything behind schedule and has led to a lot of calls from visitors hoping to find peak colors before the weather turns colder.”

National Weather Service data shows Traverse City’s temperatures averaged about 9 degrees above normal so far this month.

Gaylord’s readings have run about 7 degrees above normal in October after spiking 4.5 degrees last month, according to the weather service.

A similar trend also was apparent at Detroit Metro Airport. Temperatures logged there in September and so far this month were about 2.7 and 7.5 degrees above normal, respectively, NWS meteorologist Jordan Dale said Friday.

Areas in southern Michigan and along the lakeshores of the Great Lakes are still mostly green, according to the Pure Michigan website. If the weather stays sunny and cooler, the prediction is for another week to 10 days of spotty color.

A drive this week along Lake Michigan in Benzie and Manistee counties featured only 20 percent color, mostly muted and dull.

Despite the disappointing display so far, this fall’s unseasonably warm weather is helping draw visitors to the state’s tourist sites, said Michelle Grinnell, director of media, public and industry relations with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation-Travel Michigan.

“Trends are that the season has been pretty consistent with (past) tourist traffic,” she said. “Hotel bookings for September were up slightly from last year, at 69.9 percent (capacity).”

Grinnell said that even though Michigan’s color show is less vibrant than usual, the state has plenty of other attractions, including wineries and craft beer breweries, that can be enjoyed in the autumn.

“The good weather in fall will extend our travel season,” she said.

According to Grinnell, fall leisure travel in Michigan generated $3.23 billion in economic impact last year. “It’s the shortest season that we count, covering the months of September, October and November,” she said.

Retired dentist Fred Stoye and his wife, Debbie, of Grawn in Grand Traverse County managed to find some autumnal brilliance during a recent tour from Traverse City to Cross Village.

“The interior trees were spectacular,” Stoye said. “It was probably 40 percent along the lakeshore but very nice inland. We saw a lot of out-of-state license plates.”

John L. Russell is a writer and photojournalist from Traverse City.

Staff Writer Mark Hicks contributed.

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