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Warming temperatures and drought are making allergy season even worse

Juniperus monosperma is common in the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, Sandoval County, New Mexico.
Matt Lavin via Flickr
Juniperus monosperma is common in the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, Sandoval County, New Mexico.

For those who get seasonal allergies, there's some bad news: New research says those dreaded sniffles will only get worse as the planet warms.

KUNM spoke with University of New Mexico Biology Professor William Pockman to get a grasp on how drought and warm weather are changing New Mexico’s allergy season.

WILLIAM POCKMAN: Well, we think of spring as a time when the plants start growing and flowers come out and that's really the source of most of our seasonal allergies is pollen from plants and particularly pollen from wind-pollinated plants. We think of flowers in the spring, and then those plants are usually attracting pollinators, the ones with really obvious flowers, those are like advertisements for pollinators to come visit them and carry pollen between flowers.

The ones that really get us are wind-pollinated plants, which have flowers that are almost invisible to us, we don't notice them, they're often green, but they release copious amounts of pollen into the air. So, we breathe them. The reason they release them into the air is to spread them a long distance to another blooming tree to pollinate that tree. But, along the way, there's a lot of pollen in the air that we breathe, and that interacts with the mucosal surfaces in our nose and our body's immune system reacts to that.

KUNM: I don't think I'm the only one that has noticed my allergies getting worse and happening earlier in the year, particularly this year. How is our warming climate changing our allergy seasons?

POCKMAN: The primary way it's changing is likely because of the change in the growing season. As the average temperature of Albuquerque, or anywhere in New Mexico, or anywhere else, increases, the living systems on the landscape surrounding us respond to that and one of the cues for initiating plant growth, for example, is increasing temperature. So, the plants are experiencing favorable conditions earlier in the year. The growing season starts earlier. And as a result, the activities of particularly wind-pollinated plants start earlier and can persist longer. That doesn't mean that they're necessarily going on all the time. You know, we call them "seasonal allergies" because particular plants are actively releasing pollen at particular times of the year. But, they tend to start earlier and we noticed that because we start taking our allergy medicine sooner. I'm a victim as well. I'm very allergic to juniper, which is one of the first ones to go.

KUNM: You also study plants and their responses. What have you learned about plants and what they're doing during these seasons?

POCKMAN: It varies quite a bit across different species. I've spent a lot of time studying piñon and juniper in New Mexico landscapes and their responses to drought. Those two species have very different responses. Piñon grow on the same landscape, but piñon is active when conditions are more favorable and it basically stops photosynthesis during the worst parts of the year and kind of just sits there. When we have prolonged droughts, we see piñon mortality, as we have in several periods during the last 20 years, because of extensive drought stress.

For allergy sufferers, if you're allergic to juniper, the bad news is the juniper is one of the most drought tolerant species on our landscape, if not the most drought tolerant. Climate change is going to start the growing season earlier. But even if it comes with some drought stress, juniper is still going to be a thorn in our side from the allergy perspective.

KUNM: It sounds like people like you and me might have to brace for a much more early and longer allergy season. William Pockman is a professor with the University of New Mexico's biology department. Thanks so much.

POCKMAN: My pleasure.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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