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Global Sneezing

Could global warming have a devastating effect on pollen counts and ragweed season? Find out on this Moment of Science.

You dread it, you detest it, but once a year, every year, it comes just the same. No, I don’t mean tax time. I’m talking about ragweed season. Though a lot of people complain of “hay-fever,” what’s making them sneeze, sniffle, cough, and gag is our old friend mister ragweed, putting his pollen out into the air in a reproduction bonanza.

Well, more good news. Researchers working in Oklahoma have concluded that global warming, along with messing up everything else, is also going to create a field day for ragweed. This makes some sense, if you think about it. Ragweed doesn’t put out pollen in the middle of winter; it needs a warm spell to get going. But nobody knew whether the predicted increase in overall temperature that is resulting from global warming would likely leave the ragweed pollen production the same or actually give it a boost.

To see what’s going to happen, researchers from the University of Oklahoma cordoned off some sections of prairie and subjected them to infrared heaters. They also shaved down some of the plants already growing there to see whether the mowing would make a difference. The effect was straightforward and profound: a whopping 84% increase in pollen production from ragweed plants who were getting the heat-bath. Not only did pollen go up, more ragweed grew in heated areas than in control areas. The mowing made no difference. It was pretty much a ragweed free-for-all.

So if you’re a yearly sneezer, wheezer, or scratcher, get ready–global warming may soon be more to you than just a finger-pointing exercise on Capitol Hill.

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