Worsening allergies are just one of the ways Clay Pope has seen climate change play out in his life.
Hanging from a wall in his barn shop in Loyal, in the northwest of the state, are a pair of ice skates that belonged to his grandfather, who often skated on a pond in the winter.
“I’ve only seen it twice in my life cold enough to have the courage to cross the pond,” said Pope, who works with the Department of Agriculture’s Southern Plains Climate Hub in El Reno.
Experts say fewer cold spells are among the factors that have created longer growing seasons for all kinds of vegetation – including weeds, grasses and trees whose pollen makes many of us itchy and sneeze.
For Pope, that meant year-round allergy symptoms.
“In the past, you got that break and you got a bit of a break,” he said. “It doesn’t look like you’re getting that break like you used to.”
Pollen seasons have already lengthened by around 20 days a year since 1990. And new research bodes ill for allergy sufferers: Climate change is likely to make pollen allergy seasons longer and more intense, according to researchers Yingxiao Zhang and Allison Steiner from the University of Michigan.
Their research found that, by the end of this century, pollen allergy seasons could start 40 days earlier in spring and last an additional 19 days, compared to allergy seasons between 1995 and 2014.
Warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide production could also mean plants emit up to 200% more pollen per year, they found.
Years ago, winters and summers were slow times for allergists, who tended to see more allergy patients in the fall and spring, said Dr. Dean Atkinson of Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic in Oklahoma City.
“We don’t have that anymore,” Atkinson said. “People say, ‘It’s allergy season,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, it is, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference, because we’re busy all the time.'”
Pollen counts have increased over the years and more and more people are affected by pollen, he said.
A warmer climate, coupled with increased levels of carbon dioxide from human activities like driving, helps plants grow, Atkinson said.
“Rising CO2 levels, as we increase that, are going to lead to more plant growth,” he said. “As they grow, they pollinate of course.”
How pollen is counted
The Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic publishes a daily allergy report showing levels of types of pollen and mold in the air the day before.
Compiling the daily reports is a more analog process than some might guess: it starts with a trip to the roof of the clinic.
Early Monday morning, Sandra West collected a slide from an air sampler called Burkard. On the slide is a strip of everything that has been in the air for the previous 24 hours: pollen, dirt, debris – even soot, sometimes, when wildfires have burned.
Under the microscope, a dye helps the pollen stand out on the slide in shades of pink. From there, West’s job is to study the slide, noting and counting the types of pollen granules she sees. One day last week, for example, West said she saw a lot of mulberry pollen.
A formula translates its count into low, medium, high, or very high categories for grasses, weeds, and tree pollen, as well as molds.
On Monday, the clinic issued a “very high alert” for tree pollen – oak in particular – and said people sensitive to the pollen could experience severe symptoms. Last week there were three consecutive days of “very high” alerts for tree pollen.
Data from more than two decades of pollen counts shows evidence that, like everywhere in the United States, Oklahoma City is already experiencing longer and more intense pollen activity. It is already ranked as the sixth most difficult US city for people with pollen allergies.
Using data from 2000 to 2021, the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic mapped how the volume of various pollens in the air has changed over the years. For several types of pollen, including trees, grasses and weeds, the data indicates that there has been a significant increase.
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For example, May was once a fairly low time for tree pollen, following the peak tree pollen months of March and April. But May’s numbers have increased over the past decade, which could mean the tree pollen season is lasting longer than before, according to the clinic’s analysis. Ragweed concentrations, which tend to peak in September, have also increased significantly.
Oklahoma is a particularly tough place for people with allergies, said Dr. Tim Trojan, an allergist who practices in Enid and Stillwater. In addition to perennial allergy triggers like pets and dust mites, Oklahoma sees extended seasonal triggers, he said.
“These extended seasons come, historically, from the cedar that torments us through the winter, in addition to the normal trees that catch us in the spring, then the grasses in late spring and summer, then the weeds in the summer. ‘fall,” Trojan said. . “So we end up with aeroallergy triggers really, almost all year round.”
Oklahoma’s global warming
In recent decades, Oklahoma has experienced fewer periods of extremely cold weather, said Gary McManus, state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. As a result, growing seasons are getting longer, spring is coming earlier and intense precipitation events are becoming more frequent, he said.
A sobering example of our global warming: December 2021 was the hottest December on record in Oklahoma, breaking the previous record by more than 3 degrees. In a press release from the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the record month was called a “climatological anomaly on steroids.”
“It wasn’t just the hottest on record – it was ridiculously hot,” McManus said. “More than 10 degrees above normal based on state average, according to Oklahoma Mesonet.”
Oklahomans are already feeling the changes
Allergies plague Mackenzie Masilon year-round in Oklahoma City, even with her daily allergy medication and twice-daily nasal spray to get through the day. Windy days, she says, are particularly difficult.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Masilon felt her allergies worsen over the years, to the point that she recently sought out a specialist for help.
“It’s to the point where I have to be aware, if I’m sitting outside… what will the next day be like because of me?” Masillon said.
When she visited other parts of the country, such as California and Colorado, her allergy symptoms eased, only to return home to Oklahoma and struggle again. A few years ago, a doctor even suggested that she move.
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Jennifer Bell, from Shawnee, said she has noticed less of a flare-up with her allergies over the years.
“While I think it has gotten worse, in that there is never a time of year when I don’t have to manage my allergy symptoms, I know that now and I can stay on top,” Bell said. “If I miss a dose of my Zyrtec, I’m sick for three days.”
Sarah Terry-Cobo, from central Oklahoma, has known for years that she is allergic to certain types of dust and mold. Its symptoms are frequent and throughout the year, and they get worse as time goes from one extreme to another.
She takes managing her symptoms seriously: taking several types of allergy medication, diligently changing the air filters in her home, vacuuming often, and wearing a mask when gardening.
“I don’t know what else to do, other than maybe allergy shots,” Terry-Cobo said. “I used to do this when I was in high school, and it gave me a lot of relief,” although she recalls the process of allergy tests and injections being long and painful.
Imagining that her allergies could intensify over the years “feels really daunting,” she said.
For Trojan, the allergist from Stillwater and Enid, “we are anticipating by trying to ensure that we take care of these patients, not only for their allergic rhinitis, but especially this allergic asthma”.
Allergic asthma is of particular concern to him, he says, because it often affects children and can be dangerous.
As pollen seasons may become longer and more intense, people who work outdoors, people who may face barriers accessing primary care, and people who struggle to pay for their medications could bear the brunt of this burden, Trojan said.
“If you can’t afford your medications, you’re less likely to use them regularly,” he said. “And if you can’t afford it, then you’re stuck with recurring exacerbations and you end up in the ER.”
The effect of climate change on health could also have long-term implications for people’s quality of life and productivity, Trojan said.
“We have to anticipate here in order to prevent the disease from happening,” he said.
What allergy sufferers can do
The Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic recommends staying in filtered air to avoid allergy symptoms. Here are some other tips:
- Wash your hands often.
- When the pollen count is high, limit the time spent outdoors.
- When doing outdoor activities like raking leaves, wear a dust mask like those found at hardware stores.
- Do not wear outdoor work clothes in the house.
- Change and clean furnace and air conditioner filters regularly.
- Dry your clothes in a clothes dryer rather than on an outdoor clothesline.