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'Pollen Tsunamis' Will Keep on Crashing, and the Allergic Don't Stand a Chance

Allergies are the worst, and climate change is making them worse.

by Brian Merchant
May 7 2015, 1:00pm

Scanning electron microscope image of pollen. Wikimedia

It took all the extraocular might I could muster to pry my rheum-encrusted eyes open. Then they itched like hell, so I ground them with my knuckles, in between phlegmy yawns and body-rattling sneezes. I wiped the excess snot drizzle on my undershirt, and stood, surrounded by blurry things, to make my way to the bathroom.

This is a typical early-Spring morning for me in New York City, like it is for thousands of other people with allergies that seem to keep getting worse every goddam year.

I popped a Zyrtec, took a shower. I washed out my eyeballs, frantically but thoroughly, like a schizoid diamond polisher. But even by the time I finally stumbled into the office an hour later, my co-workers still recoiled in repulsion. "Are you okay? Your eyes. So bloodshot. You look like a vampire."

This time, it is apparently because a "pollen tsunami" is crashing down on us.

"We're seeing what's called a double whammy," Dr. Clifford Basset, the medical director at Allergy and Asthma Care of New York, told DNAInfo. "We've been hit hard the last 10 days."

And that is because the surplus cold days of winter delayed the tree pollination, so that it joined a malevolent synchronicity with grass pollination. Now the trees are spewing out a higher-than-average amount of pollen, too, to make up for lost time.

But it was the same thing last year. After the Northeast finally crept cautiously out of its polar vortex, everything started blooming at once, leading to the distinctly less terrifying-sounding "pollen vortex." It sucker punched my eyeballs then, too.

As with all unpleasant environmental things, it's going to keep getting worse, and then worse. Not just because our aging, fragile fleshy bodies will continue to grow weaker and more susceptible over time, which they will, or that our waning psyches will succumb to convincing itself that the past was better each year, which it will, but because the planet itself, with our goading, is conspiring to asphyxiate us with allergens.

Climate change is, on more than one front, speeding us towards an extra-pollen-saturated world. Studies have linked the polar vortex to climate change—as counterintuitive as it seems, researchers believe the abnormal cold may be a pernicious "side effect" of global warming. If the vortex keeps getting vortex-ier, the soporific tsunamis will keep sweeping us away.

That's far from certain, but there are other near-guarantees that the age of the pollen tsunami is beginning. Other research shows that the more carbon in the air, the more pollen plants produce. When researchers locked plants in a room and changed the amount of carbon in the air from 280 parts per million (the pre-industrial level in Earth's atmosphere) to 370 ppm (average 1999 levels) pollen production doubled. When they cranked it up to 600 ppm (we're on track to get there by about 2060), it doubled again. Meanwhile, research shows that climate change has lengthened the allergy season, prolonging the irritable period for millions.

It is an insidious little byproduct of this warmer future. More carbon, more pollen. Extreme shifts from cold-to-warm; more carbon all at once. And more you and me, leaky and mucus-stained, popping allergy meds like addicts, yelling expletives at the bloom of beautiful things and cursing that we have to curse them.