First he had the symptoms. Then he saw the yellow mist. A thin layer of golden dust covered the patio furniture, the patio, his children’s swing – everything in the backyard of Ubaka Ogbogu’s home in Edmonton, Canada.
“The fog was everywhere. Even my kids — who aren’t usually keen on these things — noticed that yellow everywhere,” he said.
It was pollen, the worst Ogbogu had seen in the 20 years he had lived in Canada. This year, his nose has been constantly inflamed from allergic rhinitis and his eyes are extremely itchy.
“I was really looking forward to this spring and summer because of the pandemic and so we were right into the first week as it started to get warm, cleaning outside in the yard and getting all the furniture out. We got a new grill. And then the pollen came and I’m back inside,” Ogbogu lamented.
Across North America and beyond, people with itchy throats and swollen eyes blame the trees and grass for shedding more pollen than usual. Scientists say they’re not wrong: it is higher – and this is likely to remain the case in the years to come.
Daniel Coates, director of Canada’s Aerobiology Research Laboratories, which tests and predicts pollen across the country, said botanical sexism – with cities planting more male than female trees – is one of the reasons for higher pollen counts.
“Females have flowers and fruit and it’s very messy,” Coates said. City planners like to plant male trees because they are cleaner and easier to maintain.
The current influx of yellow pollen in Canada and the US comes from pine trees. Soon that will drop and be overtaken by grass pollen and other unseen tree pollen. Then it’s ragweed season.
But urban planners’ penchant for male plants isn’t the only cause of our increasingly woeful allergies: Extreme weather is a major driver of our pollen overload.
At least some of the pollen accumulation in drifts in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest is due to last summer’s heat dome — an extreme weather event between the 25 ).
In cases of drought and extreme heat, trees become more susceptible to diseases and pests and as a result can switch into a sort of survival mode in which they increase pollen production, said William Anderegg, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Utah.
Anderegg co-authored a 2021 study that found that both pollen season length and pollen concentration are increasing. Between 1990 and 2018, pollen production increased by more than 20% across North America, with notable increases in Texas and the Midwest.
“When you have particularly warm springs, which we’re getting more and more of, that favors these really bad and long allergy seasons,” he said. “And it’s not necessarily like things just have a big pollen blast and then they’re done. Many of these species will continue to produce pollen.”
In the coming days, the yellow fog of pine pollen will move east, sending allergy sufferers into sneezing fits in Montreal, New York and Boston.
Mitigating the pollen problem is important to human health, said Anderegg, who noted that productivity and school grades drop significantly when pollen levels are high.
Planting more female trees, in addition to taking greater action to mitigate the climate crisis, would bring some relief to all of us.