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It’s Official: Climate Change Worsens Global Pollen Season

Climate
Hannes Kutza / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Kim Knowlton

A new paper just out in The Lancet Planetary Health provides the first global indication that recent temperature increases, propelled by climate change, are in fact contributing significantly to longer and more intense pollen seasons.


Why is this important?

Longer allergenic pollen production seasons and increased pollen intensity could have public health significance if allergy symptoms last longer, require more treatment, or boost numbers of sensitized individuals. This multi-continent investigation highlights important links between ongoing warming and health effects that could worsen as temperatures continue to rise.

An international research team assembled hard-to-find global data sets that recorded health-relevant pollen data, such as pollen season length and pollen production intensity. Seventeen locations across 12 countries had long-term measurement records (~26 years on average) of seasonal pollen concentrations from multiple plant species. These long-term pollen records were analyzed in the context of recent changes in maximum and minimum temperatures associated with human-caused climate change.

Results indicate that 14 of the 17 locations showed increases in seasonal cumulative pollen (pollen load) in recent decades. Similarly, 13 of the 17 locations indicated an increase in season length over time: on average approximately 0.9 days per year longer.

Annual cumulative increases in temperature over time were significantly associated with percent increases in seasonal pollen length and intensity across global locations.

Researchers have already recognized that ongoing climate change can alter allergenic pollen biology in several ways. Warmer temperatures fueled by climate change can mean longer pollen seasons, more pollen produced, and more intensely allergenic pollen. Yet no single tracking system exists to monitor global airborne pollen levels and assess how concentrations may have changed over time in response to rising temperatures.

This is one of the first papers to detect that globally, an ongoing increase in temperature extremes (minimum and maximum) is already contributing to longer pollen production seasons and increased pollen load for several different types of allergenic airborne pollen.

And NASA tells us that 18 of the 19 hottest years on record globally have occurred since the year 2001, fueled by climate change.

It looks like a good time to invest in pollen allergy medication.

It's really no laughing matter. An estimated 10-30 percent of the global population is affected by seasonal pollen allergies. If you're one of the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who suffer from pollen allergies, this information isn't academic—it's a matter of health. And medication. And costs. And lost days of school and work as eyes water, noses run, and throats itch. Unfortunately for the tens of millions of people with asthma, pollen exposures can also trigger an asthma attack.

Longer pollen seasons mean longer symptom seasons among pollen-sensitized individuals, and higher pollen concentrations are linked to greater symptom severity at a population level. Climate disruptions and increased carbon dioxide concentrations could alter the allergenicity or allergen concentration of the pollen, as well as symptom severity.

These findings are just another reason in the world of reasons to do everything we can to put the brakes on climate change, as soon as possible, as boldly as possible. It is a matter of health.

Kim Knowlton is a senior scientist and deputy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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