Springtime, the flowers are blossoming, the temperature begins to warm, a time to feel optimistic after the cold winter months.
Unless you’re an allergy sufferer. Because while they may be pretty, those new blooms mean one thing: pollen. And scientists say the season in North America is starting earlier.
A new study published by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences journal has found spring pollen loads are 21 percent higher than they were in 1990.
The warmer the Earth gets, the earlier Spring starts for plants and animals, especially those that release pollen. Add to that the fact, shown in past lab studies, that trees and plants produce more pollen when they get carbon dioxide, the study found.
“The biggest signal by far is this expansion of spring pollen seasons and you see that in the pollen loads too, that spring pollen concentrations have gone up a lot, certainly more than annual pollen loads,” says William Anderegg, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Utah and the report’s lead author.
“But the total amounts are going up over annual timescales, too. So this is clearly warming temperatures and higher CO2 are kind of putting more pollen in the air too.”
It means allergy sufferers can expect to experience symptoms much earlier than before – although the pollen season does now finish slightly earlier too.
“The season starts 21 days earlier and then actually the pollen, the length of the season gets about 10 days longer because the fall actually ends a little bit earlier as well,” explains Anderegg.
Allergy sufferer Gene Longenecker didn’t realise he had a problem until he moved to Atlanta.
“I had these frequent sinus infections, moved out to Colorado, and then it became a thing. Like every summer was just crushing headaches and big things like that and started into allergy testing and found out, well, I’m allergic to everything in Colorado at the very least,” he recalls.
He has now returned home to Alabama.
Doctors say their advice to patients has changed as they experience the familiar symptoms of runny noses and sneezing.
“Years ago, I would tell patients to start their preventive therapy around St. Patrick’s Day. So now I’m telling them to start on Valentine’s Day,” says allergist Dr. Stanley Fineman.
Experts say asthma costs the U.S. economy an estimated $80 billion per year in terms of treatment and loss of productivity.
A pollen allergy is not a trivial complaint – some patients can find the effects debilitating.
“The children who suffer with this, they don’t perform as well as their peers who don’t have those symptoms, they don’t learn as well in school and so people can feel run down. I mean, I have patients coming in all the time and just say, you know, that spring pollen, it just wipes me out. I mean, I can’t function,” he says.
The study by Anderegg and his team found the rise in allergy symptoms weren’t from cities and areas getting more green from parks and plantings.
They used comprehensive data from 60 sites to do the standard but time-consuming calculations that scientists have developed to see whether changes in nature can be attributed to the increase of heat-trapping gases from the burning of coal, oil and natural gas.
Since 1990, about half of the earlier pollen season can be attributed to climate change, mostly from the warmer temperatures but also from the plant-feeding carbon dioxide, according to Anderegg.
But since the 2000s about 65 percent of the cause of earlier pollen seasons can be blamed on warming and about 8 percent of the increased pollen load can be attributed to climate change.
“To me, I feel like this is a crystal clear example that climate change is here and it’s in every breath we take it we’re we’re breathing it in and it’s affecting our health already. It’s not something that’s far away and decades in the future. So it’s a really clear example of how. It impacts all of us and really has these negative health consequences that we’re seeing around us already,” says Anderegg.
Texas is where some of the biggest changes are happening, the report found. The South and southern Midwest are getting pollen season happening about 1.3 days earlier each year, while it’s coming about 1.1 days earlier in the West.
The northern Midwest is getting allergy season about 0.65 days earlier per year and it’s coming 0.33 days earlier a year in the Southeast.
In Canada, Alaska and the Northeast they don’t see a statistically significant trend.