Worsening allergies is just one way Clay Pope sees climate change happening in his life.
Hanging on the wall at his barn shop in Loyal, in the northwestern part of the state, is a pair of ice skates belonging to his grandfather, who often skated in the pool in winter.
“I’ve only seen it twice in my life it was cold enough that I had the courage to walk across the pond,” said Pope, who works with the Department of Agriculture’s Southern Plains Climate Center in El Reno.
Experts say fewer cold periods is one factor that creates a longer growing season for all types of vegetation — including weeds, grasses and trees whose pollen makes many of us itch and sneeze.
For Pope, that means year-round allergy symptoms.
“In the past, you’d get that break and you’d get a bit of a reprieve,” he said. “Looks like you’re not getting the rest you used to.”
Pollen season has been around for about 20 days longer a year since 1990. And new research bodes badly for allergy sufferers: Climate change is likely to make pollen allergy season longer and more intense, according to researchers Yingxiao Zhang and Allison Steiner at the University of Michigan. .
Their research found that, by the end of the century, pollen allergy season could start 40 days earlier in spring and last an additional 19 days, compared to allergy season between 1995 and 2014.
Warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide production could also mean that plants emit up to 200% more pollen per year, they found.
Years ago, winter and summer were slow periods for allergists, who tended to see more patients with allergies in the fall and spring, said Dr. Dean Atkinson, of the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic in Oklahoma City.
“We don’t have it anymore,” Atkinson said. “People say, ‘This is your allergy season,’ and I say, ‘Yeah, it does, 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 people are being affected by pollen, he said.
A warmer climate, coupled with increased carbon dioxide levels from human activities such as driving a car, helps plants grow, Atkinson said.
“Increased CO2 levels, as we go up, it will lead to more plant growth,” he said. “As they grow, they of course pollinate.”
How is pollen counted
The Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic issues a daily allergy report that shows levels of different types of pollen and mold in the air for the previous day.
Developing a daily report is a more analogous process than some might think: It begins with a trip to the clinic’s roof.
Early Monday morning, Sandra West collected slides from an air sampler machine called the Burkard. On the slide are swaths of whatever has been circulating in the air for the previous 24 hours: pollen, dirt, debris—even soot, occasionally, when a forest fire has set in.
Under the microscope, the dye helps the pollen stand out on the slide in shades of pink. From there, West’s job was to study the slides, record and count the types of pollen grains he saw. One day last week, for example, West said he saw a lot of mulberry pollen.
A formula translates the count into low, medium, high or very high categories for grasses, weeds and tree pollens, and fungi.
On Monday the clinic issued a “very high alert” for tree pollen – specifically oak – and said people sensitive to pollen may 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 provides some evidence that, like places across the U.S., Oklahoma City is already seeing longer, more intense pollen activity. It is already ranked as the sixth most challenging city in the US for people with pollen allergies.
Using data from 2000 to 2021, the Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic charted 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 showed a significant increase.
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For example, May was once a fairly low period for tree pollen, following the tree pollen peak months of March and April. But the numbers for May have increased in the past decade, which could mean that the tree’s pollen season lasts longer than ever, according to a clinical analysis. The concentration of ragweed, which tends to peak in September, also increased significantly.
Oklahoma is a particularly challenging place for allergy sufferers, says Dr. Trojan team, allergists practicing at Enid and Stillwater. In addition to perennial allergy triggers such as pets and dust mites, Oklahoma sees prolonged seasonal triggers, he says.
“That prolonged season comes from, historically, from the cedars that torment us all winter, as well as the normal trees that bring us in in the spring, and then the grass in late spring and summer, and then the weeds in the fall.” Trojans said. “So we end up with aeroallergy triggers that are almost year-round.”
Warmer climate in Oklahoma
Over the past few decades, Oklahoma has experienced fewer periods of very cold weather, said Gary McManus, a state climatologist with the Oklahoma Climatological Survey. As a result, the growing season is getting longer, spring is coming earlier, and heavy rainfall is becoming more frequent, he said.
One sobering example of our warming climate: December 2021 was the hottest December on record in Oklahoma, breaking the previous record by more than 3 degrees. In a news release from the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, the record-breaking month was referred to as a “climatological anomaly on steroids.”
“It wasn’t just the hottest on record — it was very warm,” McManus said. “More than 10 degrees above normal based on the statewide average, according to the Oklahoma Mesonet.”
Oklahoman is already feeling the changes
Allergies plague Mackenzie Masilon all year round in Oklahoma City, even with her daily allergy medication and twice-daily nasal spray to get through the day. Windy days, he said, were harsh.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Masilon has had her allergies worsen over the years, to the point that she recently sought out a specialist for help.
“It got to the point where I had to realise, if I sat outside… what would the next day be like because I did that?” Masion said.
When she visited other parts of the country, such as California and Colorado, her allergy symptoms had subsided, only to return to Oklahoma and struggle again. A few years ago, a doctor even suggested he move.
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Jennifer Bell, from Shawnee, says she’s seen fewer breaks from her allergies over the years.
“Although I think it’s getting worse, to the extent that there’s never been a time of year where I haven’t had to manage my allergy symptoms, I now know that and can work on it,” says Bell. “If I miss a dose of my Zyrtec, I get 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. Symptoms are common throughout the year, and worsen as the weather changes from extreme to extreme.
He takes his symptoms seriously: various allergy medications, regularly changes the air filter in his home, frequently vacuums, and wears a mask while gardening.
“I’m not sure what else to do, other than maybe an allergy shot,” Terry-Cobo said. “I used to do that when I was in high school, and it was such a relief,” though she recalls the time-consuming and painful process of allergy testing and injections.
Imagining that her allergies might become more intense over the years “feels really scary,” she says.
For Trojan, an allergist at Stillwater and Enid, “we plan ahead by trying to make sure we treat these patients, not only for their allergic rhinitis, but especially that allergic asthma.”
Allergic asthma worries him a lot, 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 in accessing primary care and people who struggle to pay for their medicines may bear the brunt of the burden. that, said the Trojans.
“If you can’t afford your meds, you’re less likely to use them consistently,” he says. “And if you can’t afford it, then you’re stuck with repeated exacerbations and end up in the ER.”
The effects of climate change on health could have long-term impacts on people’s quality of life and productivity as well, Trojan said.
“We need to think ahead here to prevent disease from occurring,” he said.
What can allergy sufferers do?
The Oklahoma Allergy & Asthma Clinic recommends staying in filtered air to avoid allergy symptoms. Here are some more tips:
- Wash your hands frequently.
- When pollen counts are high, limit time outdoors.
- When doing outdoor activities such as sweeping leaves, wear a dust mask like those found at hardware stores.
- Do not wear outdoor work clothes at home.
- Replace and clean furnace and air conditioner filters regularly.
- Dry your clothes in the dryer, not on an outdoor clothesline.