Allergy sufferers beware: Expert predicts worst pollen season ever

If you suffer from allergies, 2013 could be a difficult year.

If you suffer from seasonal allergies, like I do, you'll find this news particularly disturbing: According to an Op-Ed article by Climate Nexus writer Marlene Cimons, 2013 could have the worst allergy season we've ever seen.

The culprits she identifies are Hurricane Sandy, the snowy winter weather, and climate change.

The planet is getting warmer, and human behavior is responsible. The changing climate has brought early spring, late-ending fall, and large amounts of rain and snow. All of that, combined with historically high levels of carbon dioxide in the air, nourishes the trees and plants that make pollen, and encourages more fungal growth, such as mold, and the release of spores.

We will be paying a wretched price in the coming months for the behavior fueling the explosion of pollen, which are the tiny reproductive cells found in trees, weeds, plants and grasses. By all accounts, there will be more pollen this year than ever before.

"[This] promises a robust allergy season,'' said Leonard Bielory, an allergy and immunology specialist with the Rutgers Center for Environmental Prediction in New Jersey, according to Cimons' article.

"The first airborne tree pollen has been measured in recent days, and while the count is still low, some allergy sufferers are showing comparatively severe symptoms,'' he added. "I expect more tree pollen than ever to be released this spring, and the reaction to the early pollen to be unusually strong.''

[ Related: Worst Allergy Season Ever? ]

She identifies the U.S. Northeast as being the region that will get the worst of it (and we can probably lump at least Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces into that too, just based on proximity). That's mainly due to all the extra moisture the regions have had, both from Hurricane Sandy and all the snow from repeated storms over the winter, but she also points to increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere due to human activity, as the perfect recipe for plants to ramp up pollen production.

Now, you may look around and think that this can't be true, because we still have a lot snowy weather around now, but winter keeping its icy grip on us longer may actually contribute to the problem.

This is due to the fact that many plants have a specific period of time that they pollinate, usually dictated by how much sunlight they're getting. In a fairly normal spring, as the weather gradually warms up the timing of when trees and plants release their pollen tends to be spread out a bit, with different peak periods for different plants. Cold weather will delay the release of pollen, but those plants are ready and raring to go at their time, so as soon as the weather warms up, they'll go into pollen-release overdrive to make up for the delay.

Since the plants don't inform each other of their schedules, the first spell of warm weather will prompt not only whichever of them are due to release their pollen, but also those that are overdue, all at the same time. That will drive pollen counts sky high and drive all of us allergy sufferers to the pharmacy for tissues and medication.

[ More Geekquinox: How astronomers find planets around other stars ]

And that's not all. According to the article, a study was published in 2011 that showed how ragweed seasons were getting longer the further you move north.

"We drew a line from Texas to Canada,'' said Bielory, according to Cimons. "The pollen count duration remained the same in Texas, but changed as you moved north. Even though you are heading north to Canada, the pollen started earlier and ended later — and it should have been shortening. This was due to earlier springs and the later onset of fall. Frost wasn't occurring as early as it used to, so ragweed was pollinating later.''

According to this study, in Winnipeg, the 2009 ragweed season lasted 25 days longer than the season in 1995 (starting around 10 days earlier and lasted around 15 days longer), and in Saskatoon, the 2009 season lasted 27 days longer (starting around 9 days earlier and lasting around 18 days longer) than the season in 1995.

Granted, your local weather will dictate exactly how how bad pollen counts get in your area. Cooler, wetter weather will tend to keep pollen counts low, just by inhibiting the plants producing too much and the rain washing the pollen from the air, but that can also promote the growth of mold and cause more mold-spore allergies instead. Hopefully, we'll be spared the worst, but forewarned is forearmed. Good luck!

(Photo courtesy: Getty)

Geek out with the latest in science and weather.
Follow @ygeekquinox on Twitter!