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Climate Change Is Likely to Cause Allergy Misery for Millions

The number of Europeans suffering from ragweed allergies could double by 2050.

An electron-microscope view of pollen from common plants. (William Crochot/Dartmouth)

Want to know what pollen season could be like in a hotter world? Imagine standing under this tree and trying to breathe:

If the rate of warming continues, the number of people suffering from ragweed allergies could jump from 33 to 77 million by 2050. That’s just for Europe: The worldwide toll would obviously be even bigger. Two-thirds of the spread of sinus-obliterating allergies is predicted to be directly tied to climate change.

That’s according to researchers at the University of East Anglia and elsewhere, who’ve published what they say is the first study quantifying global warming’s effects on pollen allergies. Using computer models, they simulated how ragweed is likely to find more and more habitable places to grow across Europe as temperatures rise. The noxious plant will also be able to pump more pollen into the air, thanks to an expected lengthening of the warm season and delayed frosts.

The number of ragweed pollen grains in a cubic meter of air, now (left) and predicted in future decades (right). (Lake et al., Environmental Health Perspectives)

Pollen misery will be highest in nations already lousy with ragweed, like Hungary and the Balkans, the researchers believe. “But the greatest proportional increases will happen in countries including Germany, Poland and France,” they say in a press release. Here’s more:

[Researcher Iain] Lake said: “Our research shows that ragweed pollen allergy will become a common health problem across Europe, expanding into areas where it is currently uncommon.

“The annual economic burden of allergic disease in the EU is already estimated at between €55 billion and €151 billion so increases on this level will bring a hefty price tag.

“Management of this invasive plant could reduce the amount of people affected to about 52 million, while a scenario which sees very rapid plant invasion would increase the amount of people affected to around 107 million. The control of ragweed is important for public health and as an adaptation strategy against the impacts of climate change.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.