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Achoo! Research shows allergy season is stronger, lasting longer

Warming climate to blame for those puffy eyes

A honey bee collects pollen from a sunflower at the Cross E Ranch Sunflower Festival in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. The festival features a 14-acre sunflower field planted with over 20 different varieties of different shapes, sizes and colors.
A honey bee collects pollen from a sunflower at the Cross E Ranch Sunflower Festival in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Allergy season is just a few weeks away, so get ready to stock up on the tissue paper and antihistamine as new research shows pollen is coming on earlier, and coming on stronger.

Led by William Anderegg, of the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, researchers involved in a study found that human-caused climate change is playing a significant role in expanding the pollen season and a partial role in increasing the amount of pollen in the air.

Those sneezy, miserable stuffy noses and itchy eyes are being impacted by a pollen season that is 20 days longer, starts 10 days earlier with pollen counts up by 21% since 1990, research shows.

Funded by the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Utah-led research was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The strong link between warmer weather and pollen seasons provides a crystal-clear example of how climate change is already affecting peoples’ health across the United States,” Anderegg said.

Allergies are not just a seasonal inconvenience but are also tied to respiratory health. There are potential complications for viral infections, emergency room visits and even a child’s school performance.

“Our results indicate that human-caused climate change has already worsened North American pollen seasons, and climate-driven pollen trends are likely to further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in coming decades,” the study said.

While there have been previous studies that showed increases in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide contribute to more pollen production in greenhouse experiences, this research expanded on that and looked at pollen trends on a continental scale and calculated the likely contribution of climate change.

The team compiled measurements between 1990 and 2018 from 60 pollen count stations across the United States and Canada maintained by the National Allergy Bureau. Several of those stations are in the Intermountain West, including Utah.

During the study period, pollen amounts increased by about 21%, with the greatest increases recorded in Texas and in the Midwest.

The research suggests that warming temperatures are affecting plants’ internal timing to start producing pollen earlier in the year.

Scientists applied statistical methods to pollen trends in conjunction with nearly two dozen climate models.

Results showed that climate change alone could account for around half of the pollen season lengthening and around 8% of the pollen amount increasing. By splitting the study years into two periods, 1990-2003 and 2003-2018, the researchers found that the contribution of climate change to increasing pollen is accelerating.

Those results should prove cautionary, researchers said.

“Climate change isn’t something far away and in the future. It’s already here in every spring breath we take and increasing human misery,” Anderegg said. “The biggest question is — are we up to the challenge of tackling it?”