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Are we experiencing a 'pollen vortex' this spring?

By Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer
Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 1:45 PM

During the brutally-cold winter that spread throughout much of Canada and the United States this year, the term 'polar vortex' became a common sight in headlines and on social media, and thanks to that particular weather pattern, the term 'pollen vortex' has been making the rounds as well.

The term 'polar vortex' has been around for several decades, used by meteorologists and atmospheric scientists to describe the swirling vortex of air around the north and south poles. It became a bit of a buzz-phrase this winter as the pattern slipped down over North America several times, blasting us with frigid winds, and burying us under snowstorms and blizzards. With spring weather finally arriving, a new term is coming out of the U.S., though - the 'pollen vortex'. This isn't referring to an actual swirling vortex of pollen, though. It's simply a made-up term to relate the sudden burst of pollen we're receiving to the bitter winter cold.

Plants and trees have a very specific timeline or calendar that they follow each year for when they sprout, produce buds and when they fill the air with pollen. This calendar differs from species to species, but it's generally tied to temperature and how much sunlight they receive during the day. With a normal spring, with temperatures starting to warm up just as the season starts and proceeding gradually towards summer, this tends to spread the production of pollen out over a few months.

However, although plants are usually seen as being fairly simplistic, they are capable of adapting - after all, they've survived through Earth's history and changes in climate for a very long time. So, along with this calendar, they have evolved a kind of 'snooze button' that comes into play if it's warm enough for them to sprout and bud, but it's still a bit too cold for their pollination to do them much good. So, in a season like we've been seeing so far, with a very late start to any kind of weather that we can actually call 'spring-like', all the plants that tend to pollinate early in the season have been slapping that 'snooze button' all along. Meanwhile, the plants that pollinate later in the season have been sticking to their normal schedule, really unaffected by this cooler weather.

Now that the weather is actually warming up, the 'snoozers' are springing into action at the same time that the later-pollinating plants are just getting their alarm buzzing to start. As a result, pollen counts skyrocket and allergy sufferers reach for the tissues and antihistamines. 

There is a bright side to all of this, though. Even though the burst of pollen from trees and flowers - typically spread out through April and May - got started late, it won't drag on for much longer than it usually does. It's all just concentrated into a shorter time period. 

Of course, for allergy sufferers, this all depends on what your specific 'trigger' is. The trees and flowers are now, but there's still grasses to "look forward to" in June and July, moulds in the mid-summer, and then the oh-so-wonderful ragweed season in late-summer to early autumn. 

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