Usually it's the middle of October before Danny Davis has to dust off his rake and crank up the leaf blower.
But this year he's already raked his first lawn, clearing a light covering for a customer on Elder Mountain.
"That was definitely the earliest leaf job we've done in a dozen years," said Davis of Davis Outdoor Maintenance. "We're two or three weeks ahead of schedule. Maybe more."
Scientists and forestry workers back up Davis' assessment and say tri-state residents are likely to see fewer colors in the trees and more leaves on the ground earlier than usual.
Without water during August -- the driest month in Chattanooga's recorded history -- many trees have skipped fall and gone right into winter.
"A lot of the trees are shutting down a little early," said North Georgia forest health specialist Scott Griffin.
"It might just be a everything-turns-brown-and-falls-off kind of year," said Josh Burnette, a forester with the Georgia Forestry Commission.
In most trees, the kaleidoscope of colors comes from sugars produced by photosynthesis in the leaves, explained Jim Dale, spokesman for the Tennessee Forestry Division.
Warm September and October days allow trees to produce sugar, but cool nights constrict the veins taking the sugar back into the tree. The sugar is stuck in the leaves and breaks down the chlorophyll, turning the leaves crimson and orange.
Danny Skojac, with the Chattahoochee National Forest, said high elevations and other dry areas will be the first places where trees shed their leaves. He said he's seen several signs of "premature coloring" around Whitfield and Murray counties.
"A lot of the dry spots on top of the ridges already turned two weeks ago," he said. "That rain was just a little too late getting to us."
Joy Reinert, general manager at the Southern Belle Riverboat, said she decided at the beginning of the year that the company would start its leaf cruises a week early on Oct. 14 this year to help meet demand.
But she said the crowds the boat takes into the river gorge don't change much even if the leaves are in a supposedly down year.
"It's so pretty anyway, it hasn't affected us," Reinert said.
Though she's been running river cruises for more than 20 years, she said it's hard to guess what the leaves will do.
"I leave that to the other people to figure out," she said.
Dale said trees around creeks or in low-lying hollows still might show off their colors, but he's not optimistic.
"It would be a big gamble to say we're going to have the brilliant colors anywhere but those spots," he said.
Still, Dale said, Mother Nature has surprised experts before.
"It's really anybody's guess," he said.
Andy began working at the Times Free Press in July 2008 as a general assignment reporter before focusing on Northwest Georgia and Georgia politics in May of 2009. Before coming to the Times Free Press, Andy worked for the Anniston Star, the Rome News Tribune and the Campus Carrier at Berry College, where he graduated with a communications degree in 2006. He is pursuing a master’s degree in business administration at the University of Tennessee ...