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Allergy Season Starts Earlier And Lasts Longer As Climate Changes

The onset of pollen moved from early-April to mid-March, and the peak moved from mid-April to early-April, according to Steven Holland's calculations.
The onset of pollen moved from early-April to mid-March, and the peak moved from mid-April to early-April, according to Steven Holland's calculations.
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press
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It has been a rough pollen season for some allergy sufferers. In Atlanta, Friday had the highest pollen count since April, 2013. And to add insult to injury, allergy season has been starting earlier.

Last week, Steven Holland tweeted a chart he’d made, showing that spring pollen season has been gradually beginning — and peaking — earlier here. He wrote “with climate change, pollen comes earlier to Georgia.”

Holland is a geologist and paleontologist at the University of Georgia, specializing in marine fossils, so, no, he’s not a climatologist or an allergist or a plant guy. But he does have a personal interest in the topic, as someone who has allergies.

“I’m feeling it,” he said. “Mostly just kind of foggy, I can feel a kind of itchiness in my throat.”

But instead of just sitting around feeling bad, Holland has been collecting data, using the pollen count  from Atlanta Allergy and Asthma.

“I realized I had like five or six or seven years’ worth of data and I could start to see that the timing of the pollen started to change from year to year,” he said.

And he could see that since 2013, everything has moved up a couple weeks. According to his calculations, the onset of pollen moved from early-April to mid-March, and the peak moved from mid-April to early-April.

Holland cautions that his might not be a long enough data set to really see a trend; he’s been tracking this on the side, it’s not exactly his day job.

Someone whose job this is, though, is Lew Ziska, senior plant physiologist at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. One thing he studies is the connection between climate change and allergies.

In one recent paper, published in the medical journal the Lancet, he and his co-authors looked at temperature and pollen trends in the Northern Hemisphere going back decades.

“What we’re seeing is earlier springs and later falls,” Ziska said.

Trees start flowering earlier in the year, sending out boatloads of pollen that torment people with tree allergies.  And then fall allergy season goes later, with ragweed as the main culprit that time of year.

This is happening, Ziska said, because it’s getting warmer.

“There’s a clear correlation, connection, between the change in temperature, the change and the increase in the length of the allergy season and also the amount of pollen that’s being recorded,” he said.

Ziska recently worked on another study that showed that hay fever incidence is going up in the United States, too.

This is a reminder, Ziska said, that not all plants are beneficial, and when people seem to reject concerns about climate change because “CO2 is plant food,” it’s worth remembering that climate change doesn’t just mean more rice yield, he said. “It also means more weeds. It also means more poison ivy. It also means more changes at all levels of the food chain.”

And more allergies.

Here in Atlanta, physician Erinn Gardner, who works at Atlanta Allergy and Asthma, said she has noticed a change in allergy season the past few years.

“I definitely think that we’re seeing people earlier in the year when it comes to allergy symptoms,” she said, “because with the increase in pollen counts people are suffering early earlier and as a result they come to our office looking for relief.”

For those who suffer from allergies, Gardner suggested keeping windows closed and running the air conditioner, showering after being outside for a while and remembering to wipe down pets, too.

And Holland said he’s found out he can get more data, and he’s working on a new chart, adding a few more decades to his personal pollen project.