Pollen Apocalypse made worse by rising global temperatures

 

May 23, 2019

Clouds of pollen have hovered across the valley during the past two weeks.

Pollen clouds that have carpeted the Chilkat Valley this month are exacerbated by climate change, according to recent research published by the American Academy of Allergy and Asthma & Immunology.

Haines residents are terming the weather condition "pollmagadon" and "a banner year for pollen," causing increased allergy medication sales and, according to local vet Michelle Oakley, several cases of pet allergy flare up.

"Tree sex can be hazardous to your health," Oakley wrote on Instagram last week, accompanying a video of the fine yellow powder hovering above the mountains.

State forester Greg Palmieri said that while pollen germination happens every year, it's uncommon for it to be so visible.

Pollen is produced by buildup cones on male trees typically between April and mid-June, Palmieri said. When temperatures are warm enough, the cones burst and release tiny pollen grains that fertilize female trees.

To produce large plumes at once, as Haines saw several times this month, requires certain conditions. "We have to have the combination of dryness, winds and consecutive warm days for a cloud like that," Palmieri said. "Germination is directly connected to temperature."


Spring temperatures in Haines have slightly increased over the last 20 years, according to local meteorologist Jim Green. National Weather Service official statistics show that the first two weeks of May have warmed by an average of three degrees since 2000.

The first 15 days of May were the driest since 2015, with an average rainfall of .20 inches, compared to 1.24 inches in 2018 and .67 inches in 2017.

Commercial pilot Drake Olsen remembers a heavy plume season about 10 years ago that affected visibility from his plane.

"I've seen this before," Olsen said this week. "I think a bigger question is: Why? Our trees are saying something, if we can only hear them."

The message might be a warning, based on the Lancet Planetary Health study published last month that shows a correlation between global warming trends and an increase in allergy season duration and pollen volume.

For two decades, researchers monitored 17 locations in the northern hemisphere, including Fairbanks, and locations in France, Korea and Greece, and found that the majority of the locations (12 of 17) experienced longer allergy seasons with more pollen.

In Fairbanks, the average percentage change per year is 12.2 percent, the highest of locations researchers measured. The study concludes that the faster the climate changes, the worse the conditions are.

Alaska is among the fastest warming regions on earth, heating twice as fast as the global average temperature during the past 50 years, according to the National Climate Change Assessment. In 2016, Fairbanks nearly broke the world-record for birch pollen count, falling just below Denmark's 2014 count.


Southern states are also seeing the shift. News reports in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina reported an early start to allergy season and conditions of hazy yellow air.

Pollen affects one in five people, according to allergist specialist Susan Waserman of Ontario, Canada. She said that people often become allergic to things they're frequently exposed to. "Pollen is one of those things; in the spring, a cubic meter of air can contain thousands of pollen grains, so we're inhaling them fairly constantly."

This year, more Haines residents are turning to over-the-counter medication to subdue allergic reactions such as congestion, wheezing and swelling. "Each year I've had people coming in needing allergy stuff, but I think this year with the pollen clouds it's been a lot worse," Olerud's co-owner Sarah Swinton said.

Howser's IGA manager Kevin Shove said allergy medication sales have doubled this year.

Pollen counts in Alaska reached 2,500 grains per cubic meter, which is above average, according to Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma, Immunology Center of Alaska.

"Anything over 700 is considered very high for pollen count," Demain said. "Right now, Anchorage is in the 800 level."

Pollen levels have been measured in two Alaska cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, for 20 and 40 years respectively, using a tool that catches pollen over a 24-hour period. Scientists then look at the pollen under a microscope and use a formula to estimate the total count.


Demain, who conducts pollen counts twice a week, said this year's count is not higher than normal in Anchorage, though he's seeing an earlier, longer season.

"Overall there's more pollen, but its more pollen spread out over a period of time," he said. "The pollen cycles are becoming much, much earlier."

Data shows that higher pollen levels and longer allergy periods are associated with northern locations.

Research also shows that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air are affecting pollen production and increased reactivity to the allergen.

"Higher CO2 is going to produce more allergy symptoms than a pollen grain with less CO2," he said. Effects also include increased amounts of pollen produced and increased potency, he said.

To combat symptoms of allergies, Demain recommends identifying what you're allergic to and modifying your behavior to best avoid it.

"Trees pollinate in the morning, so afternoon is the best time for that bike ride," he said. He also recommends closing the windows, using a free-standing air filter, and antihistamine allergy medications such as Claritin and Zyrtec.

 
 

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