Thursday, June 01, 2023

Our pollen seasons may be getting longer

| May 15, 2023 1:05 AM

We’re in the middle of allergy season and it’s often a tough time for those who suffer from hay fever. Some people are affected more than others at various times of the year. The pollen season can begin as early as late February and March as tree pollens become more widespread. With the many pine trees across North Idaho, we will often see the bright yellow pollen of pine. Other tree species like birch, cottonwood and elm trees can also cause allergy problems.

This time of the year can be the worst for many allergy sufferers. Much of May and June is typically when the grass pollens are at their highest. Then, the weed pollen will usually become the strongest in July across the region.

Many of us will experience some form of hay fever, especially during the peak of allergy season. Hay fever, technically called allergic rhinitis, is a response from your immune system to the various pollens in the air. The most common symptoms are sneezing, runny nose, watery and itchy eyes and sometimes a fever. Most people will try to manage these issues with some form of over-the-counter allergy medication. However, there are cases where pollens will impact a person’s respiratory health, leading to asthma and infections.

Recent research published in Nature Communications showed that concentrations of North American pollen have risen by approximately 20% from 1990 to 2018. It was also determined that the allergy season is beginning about 20 days earlier than usual and being extended by an extra week at the end of the season, especially in parts of the Southeast and the Midwest.

It seems that more people are suffering from allergies, including myself. I did talk with one of my relatives in Georgia. In early May, both my sister and her husband were practically sidelined for several weeks with severe allergy symptoms. It’s possible that their illnesses it was related to a cold, but they are convinced it’s allergy-related, and also said that it was one of the worst pollen reactions either of them has experienced.

Scientists believe that the Earth’s warmer temperatures are strongly contributing to the extended allergy season. Typically, as we come out of the chilly winter season and into spring, the warmer weather triggers the plants to bloom and grasses to grow. Therefore, if temperatures are climbing to above-average levels earlier than normal, then the pollen seasons will start sooner as well. Also, we do have higher amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. This can also stimulate plants to increase their production resulting in additional pollen.

One of the worst places in the world for allergy sufferers is in Melbourne, Australia. This area has experienced “thunderstorm asthma,” a rare phenomenon where if conditions are aligned perfectly, a thunderstorm can trigger a minor to a major asthma attack, especially for individuals who are susceptible. In 2016, a band of strong thunderstorms developed across southeastern Australia and led to a major outbreak of asthma attacks. In Melbourne, over 8,000 people went to the emergency room and nine others died.

For the longest time, it was believed that people that were susceptible to asthma and allergies would be helped by the associated rainfall with thunderstorms as the pollen was being washed out of the air. However, the study from researchers and a summary also published by the American Lung Association says the humidity and electricity, combined with particular airflow patterns would lead to these attacks.

With thunderstorm activity, there are often strong updrafts and downdrafts of air. Within a region of downdrafts of colder air, the particles of pollen and mold spores become more concentrated before being lifted by updrafts into the clouds. As the pollen and spores are lifted, the wind, humidity and, in some cases, lightning flashes will provide the “perfect storm” to break apart the pollen and spores into much smaller pieces. As these particles are sent back to the ground, they can pass into the nose and into the lungs much easier. Fortunately, there haven’t been any reported incidents of thunderstorm asthma in our region.

In terms of our local weather, our rainfall total for May in Coeur d’Alene is close to the 2.37-inch normal. As of the weekend, Cliff has measured 2.26 inches of precipitation. More on-and-off showers and isolated thunderstorms are possible over the next week to 10 days. It looks like there is a better chance for showers and thunderstorms across North Idaho toward the end of May and into early June. By the middle of next month, we expect a long stretch of dry and very warm weather across much of the Inland Northwest. With the potential of a new El Niño, it’s very possible that we could have a hot and dry summer season over much of the western U.S.

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