Why an explosion of pollen is causing allergies this spring?

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If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you may have reached for the Reactine a little more than usual this year.

Pollen has appeared in clouds across much of western Canada and piled up on cars, decks, driveways and even beaches.

“It’s ridiculous. I haven’t seen it like this in ages,” said Saige Liimatainen, who has been experiencing intense allergy symptoms this year, where she lives near Prince George, BC.

“I’m sitting in my car now and I’m looking at a nice dusting of pollen on my mirror. And it’s pretty bad. My allergies are pretty awful.”

High pollen counts, driven in part by last year’s heat dome, are driving shifts on beaches like this one at West Lake near Prince George, BC (Saige Liimatainen)

How bad is it?

According to Daniel Coates, director of Aerobiology Research Laboratories in Ontario, pollen levels are high in much of western Canada.

The Ottawa lab monitors pollen and spores across Canada to provide data and predictions for a number of trees, including oak, birch and pine.

“Right now, the pine is increasing in Edmonton and it has been for a while,” Coates says.

In Saskatchewan, both Saskatoon and Regina have experienced high pollen rates this spring.

“For pine pollen this year in Saskatoon, it’s similar to last year. We’ve had almost 500 grains per cubic meter for a few days, which is very high,” he says.

According to Coates, the pine forest in Regina is worse than last year and lasts from the end of May until now.

The root of this floating nuisance comes from the branches of the coniferous trees. The blooming display on our trees is breathtaking — by many definitions, says Janice Cooke, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta.

“The spruces in our urban neighborhoods are loaded like Christmas trees with all these cones,” she says.

“Occasionally we get a confluence of developmental and meteorological conditions. Everything aligns and we get a great bloom and that’s what we call masts.”

This is the first time in a few years that we’ve seen this, she says.

Heat is a driving factor

Cooke says a tree’s pollen development is delayed. This means that this year’s bloom is determined by last year’s weather.

“We had a drought and we also had an extreme heat last summer. Both things are very hard on plants,” said Helen Shook, a research technician who runs GardenLine, a free emergency service offered by the University of Saskatchewan.

She says a tree’s response to those conditions is sometimes to go into overdrive when it comes to reproduction.

“That triggers all kinds of things in the plant. And one of those things is a survival mechanism. So we have to make babies, we have to make seeds.”

Cooke says our cooler spring has also affected pollen release. She says night frosts and cooler daytime temperatures have slowed pollen secretion.

“They all fall off at the same time. That’s why we’re seeing so much pollen in the air this year,” Cooke says.

While the excess cones won’t damage the trees, it can affect growth. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Is climate change to blame?

The answer to that question is a bit complicated, according to Cooke. That’s because many of these trees only occasionally produce large cone crops because they are resource-intensive.

“Even under climate change conditions, where we might see those warm summer heat domes more often, they won’t always match these huge crops,” she says.

And while stress on the trees and high cone production can affect growth, Cooke says it won’t harm the trees to produce that much pollen.

“It makes them have a little shortage in the season. But this season has really been conducive to tree growth so far,” she says.

Allergy patients feel the consequences

Of course, the other thing that is growing is the irritation of people who suffer from seasonal allergies.

dr. Ross Chang, an allergy specialist in Burnaby, BC, says patients seem to be experiencing more severe symptoms lately this season.

“Allergies are an exaggerated response of the immune system. We call it hyper-reactivity,” said Chang, the former president of the BC Society of Allergy and Immunology. “And in certain people, otherwise harmless things like pollen, dust, pets or food can cause both moderate and severe allergic reactions.”

Chang says everything from itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose to breathing difficulties like asthma can all be caused by pollen counts as we’ve seen.

Pollen from Hudson’s Bay Mountain in Smithers, BC (Submitted by Jim Oud)

According to Chang, about 20 percent of people in Canada suffer from some type of seasonal airborne allergy.

“The most important thing is that to let people know that there is help for people with allergies, you don’t have to suffer for it,” he says. “There are many methods we can do to help you enjoy your spring and summer activities.”

At the pollen lab in Ottawa, Coates agrees that when the counts run out, there are little things you can do that help.

“Go for a walk after it rains because rain washes the pollen out of the air,” he says.

Even masking, wrapping sunglasses or keeping pets off furniture on bad pollen days can save you from symptoms, according to Coates.

On really bad days, drastic measures may apply, he adds.

“Just stay inside.”

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This story is part of a CBC News initiative titled “Our Changing Planet” to show and explain the effects of climate change. Stay up to date with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

Why an explosion of pollen is causing allergies this spring?

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