When Is Fall Season 2023 – From Glacier National Park in the north to Yellowstone in the south, Montana is a nature lover’s paradise with over a million acres of wilderness, mountains, glaciers and dense forests. In the fall, Big Sky Country is decked out in gold and bronze with stunning foliage displays around every corner.
Fall foliage season arrives in mid-September. At that time, you can see beautiful colors in the northern parts of the state, especially in the higher elevations of Glacier National Park. In central Montana, peak fall colors can be seen from late September to early October. The beautiful western larches (Larix occidentalis) with their golden needles only start to change in mid-October. In Yellowstone National Park, fall colors can be seen from mid-September in the highest elevations through early October in the low-lying areas.
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The North Fork of the Flathead River features many aspens that show golden hues fairly early in the season. The higher altitudes are rich in western larches which turn yellow later. Bowman Lake might be the most scenic destination in the area thanks to the lush forest, which looks simply stunning in the fall. Visit the shores of Lake McDonald for the fiery show of color or head to Essex for riverside views. Take a scenic rafting trip down the Middle Fork Flathead River. In East Glacier, visit Two Medicine Valley, especially Lower Two Medicine Lake, to photograph the beautiful fall foliage reflections. Finally, take the scenic 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Highway, which cuts through the park from west to east. The west side of the road to Logan Pass is especially picturesque thanks to panoramic valley views and colorful aspens. When you finally get to St. Mary Lake on the east side, there are more spectacular trees to see.
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The North Entrance to Yellowstone National Park is easily accessible from Gardiner, Montana. Some of the prettiest fall destinations in North Yellowstone include Lamar Valley. This remote area is full of poplars and wildlife. Herds of bison, pronghorn, bald eagles, coyotes, grizzly bears and deer are often seen there in the fall. Custer Gallatin National Forest is a fall foliage paradise found along the Yellowstone River. Explore the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness just east of Gardiner or the Gallatin Wilderness to the north and west.
The Bitterroot Valley, south of Missoula, is a true leaf-watching paradise with a kaleidoscope of fall color in every direction. Take a 154km scenic drive through the region on Highway 93, surrounded by the Bitterroot Mountains on one side and the Sapphire Mountains on the other. The beautiful Bitterroot River is framed by golden and tan foliage, especially around Hamilton. Meteorological autumn begins in September. But already in mid to late summer large-scale factors are at work that will have an impact on the coming seasons. Looking ahead, we can already see the influence of La Niña on fall weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, especially North America, continuing into winter 2022/2023.
Meteorological autumn covers three months, from September to November. This is the transition season from the hottest part of the year to the coldest part of the year. So for that reason it can be quite dynamic.
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Again, a major player for fall weather this year will be La Niña, with a known history of fall impacts. So, before we get into predictions, let’s take a quick look at how La Nina works and what impact its story can show us for the future.
La Niña is a cold phase of the large and powerful oceanic ENSO oscillation. If you haven’t heard of this ENSO before, don’t worry. In a minute you will learn all the information you need.
For simplicity, ENSO is short for “El Niño Southern Oscillation”. This is a region of the tropical Pacific Ocean, which changes between cold and warm phases. Tropical trade winds (winds that circle the Earth near the equator) generally start or stop a certain phase, as they mix the ocean surface and can change ocean currents.
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The following image from NOAA Climate shows typical circulation during a negative ENSO (La Niña) event. Air is descending in the eastern Pacific, creating stable, dry weather, while rising air in the western Pacific is causing frequent thunderstorms and lots of rain.
In this way, ENSO has a large impact on tropical precipitation and pressure patterns, influencing the very delicate climate system of the oceanic atmosphere. This ocean-atmosphere interaction system distributes ENSO’s influence globally throughout our weather seasons.
Typically, we observe a global change in pressure patterns during the rise and duration of an ENSO phase. Each phase has a unique impact on the tropics and, with some lag, on our climate as well.
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The following image shows all ENSO regions. The main regions are 3rd and 4th, and together they cover much of the equatorial Pacific. However, most of the analyzes and forecasts are based on the 3.4 region, which is a more central area.
Each ENSO phase has a different influence on the tropical climate and therefore has a different impact on the climate around the world. A specific phase (hot/cold) usually develops in late summer and autumn and can last until the following summer or, in some cases, even up to two years.
The cold phase of ENSO is called La Niña and the warm phase is called El Niño. The ENSO phase is determined by the temperature anomalies (warmest/coldest) in the ENSO 3.4 region you saw in the image above.
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The image below shows the latest global analysis of ocean temperature anomalies. It reveals colder-than-normal surface waters in the central and western ENSO regions. This basically showcases a healthy western-based La Niña, one of the strongest at this point in decades.
We may also see an unusually strong warm anomaly in the central North Pacific and generally warmer-than-normal waters in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Next we have an approach to ENSO regions. You can see cold anomalies that have a “wavy” shape. This is due to strong easterly trade winds which push the waters westward, creating eddies on the ocean surface.
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Some of the cold weather anomalies in the tropical Pacific continue from last year’s strong La Niña. It was growing during the last fall and winter, continuing through the spring. The image below shows the temperature progression in ENSO regions, where you can see the first phase of La Niña in 2020/2021 and the new one last fall.
We produced a high-resolution animation showing the development of ocean temperature anomalies in the ENSO regions of the Pacific from winter to spring 2022. The cold anomalies held steady, bringing the cold phase to the Northern Hemisphere warm season .
Since then, we can look at the graph below to see the temperature progression in the western region of ENSO 4. It currently shows some of the strongest cold weather anomalies for this time of year in recent memory.
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It can be seen that there was a temporary reduction in cooling in the early summer. But now we are back in a decent cooling episode, mainly due to the stronger easterly trade winds in this region.
Below is an analysis/forecast chart from ECMWF, showing the ENSO 3.4 main region forecast. We may see continued negative anomalies and cooling into the fall and even winter of 2022/2023. The average forecast remains within the La Niña threshold (-0.5 or colder).
Current ECMWF autumn ocean temperature forecasts show that La Niña is present throughout the equatorial Pacific Ocean. It is not as strong as last year but it has a strong presence in the ocean and also in the atmosphere as we will see in the forecast part of the article.
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Another respected ENSO prediction comes from the Australian BOM office. They produced a graph containing the prediction of several long-range global patterns. The Australian BOM uses a different threshold (+/- 0.8) for ENSO phases than NOAA (+/- 0.5).
The forecast is centered on November 2022 and shows that all models and forecasting centers agree that the negative phase of ENSO is active. There are differences in La Niña strength over this period, but the average prediction across all models agrees with a moderately active event.
There have been several fall/winter seasons with an active La Niña phase. Counting last year, there have been a total of 10 such seasons in the past 25 years.
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We have produced special graphs showing the correlation between ENSO and the height of the global geopotential in the period from September to December. Simplified, it shows the prevailing signal during an active ENSO phase. In this case, the colors represent a La Niña signal.
First, we have the pressure model, which covers the autumn and early winter period. The two features that stand out are the North American model and the North Atlantic pressure model.
In the North Atlantic, we see a high pressure system that extends from the ocean north to Greenland. To the west we have a low pressure area over Canada and the northeastern United States and a high pressure system extending from the North Pacific to