Hay Fever (and climate change)

It’s not the hay, though.  It’s the ragweed.  Ambrosia artemesiifolia or Ambrosia psilostachya, both from the Sunflower family.

I’ve had ever-worsening allergies here at Hopi for the last five years or so.  Last summer was the pits – Kerry even had to give me a lift to Flagstaff (my eyes were swollen shut) just to escape the pollen.  Keep in mind, I’ve never had allergies until now.

The cause?  As best I can tell it’s the ragweed.  And the Russian thistle (a brush against the plant causes my arms to break out).  And also perhaps lodgepole pine (up at Vail the second week of June, I’m a runny, congested mess).

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We’ve all heard it.  And we all have allergies.

Which is my point exactly.  In the last few years, it seems that everyone here is walking around with itchy red eyes, swollen faces, and congested sinus.  Hopi Health Care ER is full of it.  And this year I’ve done my own informal survey, asking every checkout clerk in Flag, every person in a chance conversation, etc. if they have allergies.  The answer has been uniform, 100%.  Yes.  But not like this.  Or not until now.  Or never this early.  Or it is way worse then I’ve ever experienced.  100%.  Not one person (out of perhaps 100) answered differently.


I asked the pharmacist in Walgreens about it.  “There’s probably some pollen or something in the air that they’re allergic to,” she said.

Now there’s a waste of eight years of education.

What’s interesting is to have a widespread allergic response at Hopi.  They’re an isolated, genetically uniform population that have been living in this environment for over two thousand years.  By now folks would have either adapted to allergens native to the environment.  Or if they had always been this severe,  I doubt people would have settled here in the first place.

So at a birds eye view, what’s going on?  Non-native invasive species (ragweed and russian thistle) have moved in.  But that happened with grazing and land disturbance at least a hundred years ago.  What’s happened in the last few years?  It could be diet or lifestyle related – think homeopathy.  Bodies were once able to cope with local allergens because folks spent most of each day out on the land and had exposure year round, as well as consuming micro quantities through the local food.  Now people are holed up inside in cubicles or watching TV at home.  But it still doesn’t quite add up.

The best answer through my lense came from Bill McKibben a few weeks ago in his book Eaarth.  It’s climate change.  According to McKibben, a recent study showed that ragweed grows 10% taller and puts out 60 percent more pollen with increasing temperatures. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 13 years.  In addition, the pollen season has extended because the growing season is longer.  And ragweed pollen can travel hundreds of miles.  It doesn’t need to be growing here.

What holds true for ragweed may hold true for other plants.  A friend who was in Beaver Creek this last month (and is normally not prone to extreme allergies) was a mess.  She described walking through “storms of pollen raining through the air”.

Which means climate change isn’t going to just result in trivial disasters like super cell storms, class 5 hurricanes, severe flooding in the upper and lower midwest, 365 straight days of rain in Columbia, and massive tornados wiping out Joplin Missouri.

All of our eyes will be swollen and itching, too.


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