We all know the meme, Sean Bean’s stark countenance reminding us that “winter is coming.” When the devastating “Polar Vortex” winter storm event was ripping across the country earlier this year the character actor’s warning was embedded in the content of several third and fourth-tier news outfits. Fortunately, Seattle was largely spared the havoc in its cloistered little corner of the country. It looks, however, like a very different vortex, this one composed of pollen, may be whirling its way across the fruited plains—and this time Seattle may not fare quite as well. What meme do you use to warn the country when the coming threat isn’t ice, but ragweed?
Before going full cyber-Paul Revere, however, it is perhaps appropriate to note that the existence of a Pollen Vortex isn’t completely embraced by the entirety of the scientific community. Those who do accept the pollen vortex, however, largely point to the polar vortex as the source of its origin. Their line of thinking, briefly, is this: the polar vortex, characterized by persistent frigidity and moisture, has stunted the typical reproductive cycle of various flora and delayed, in many cases, the bloom and release of pollen that in any other year would have happened weeks ago.
Across the country, allergists reported seeing somewhat low levels of pollen in the atmosphere throughout April (when pollen levels are typically at their highest) and near-record-setting pollen highs in May as all those plants finally release their genetic material in an extra-flamboyant display.
Typically, the timing of the release of allergens into the atmosphere from trees, weeds, molds, etc. is staggered by virtue of their internal clocks. The twisted, sadistic humor of the pollen vortex is that allergy sufferers who might have thought that they were recovering, or that the 2014 allergy season might be relatively easy, are about to be (or are currently being) absolutely slammed by a cannonball burst of allergen activity. New Jersey allergist Robert Coifman described the phenomenon to the Press of Atlantic City as “a double whammy.”
In several urban centers, the sudden explosion of pollen activity could be dangerous for those residents unfortunate enough to be plagued with allergies. On Tuesday, pollen levels were 500 times higher this week than they were the year before, according to allergist Joseph Leija in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. The city issued a “dangerous air quality alert” and advised those suffering from allergies to remain indoors.
Allergy-suffering Seattleites, too, seem doomed for a particularly uncomfortable spring. Over the next week, IMS Health’s pollen forecasts indicate, Seattle is expected to see pollen levels in the ‘very high’ and ‘high’ levels. This Thursday, the agency predicts we should see pollen levels as high as 9.9 on a zero to twelve scale).
As noted earlier, there are some experts who are less than welcoming toward the concept of the pollen vortex, though the majority of their complaint seems to revolve around the almost-apocalyptic spinning of the pollen vortex story both in the medical community and in the media. A not-insignificant number of allergists sourced in the glut of coverage published on the pollen vortex have already expressed their reluctance to describe the event as the kind of allergen Armageddon some journalists have enthusiastically described over the last few weeks.
Others have a more specific concern; “clubberj,” a commenter on a Washington Post piece about the event, took issue with the use of the word “vortex” in particular.
“Definition: Vortex – A mass of spinning air that brings things toward the center. Please explain the use of Vortex in your teaser. Could it be weather people trying to attract even more attention? I guess if naming storms worked, now let’s misapply terms to pollen! Please! How about: Pollen count reaches a 2014 high?”
Regardless of what we call it, current pollen counts and forecasts compared to years prior do largely seem to indicate that, if anything, we are at least seeing some abnormal highs.
Another commenter on the Post piece, “–sg”, perhaps made the most telling statement of all (that, or they were attempting to alert the world to a more immediate concern): “I cannot breathe.”
An allergy is an overdramatic response on the part of the body to the introduction of a foreign, relatively harmless substance—like pollen. The incidence of allergies has increased rapidly over the last century and the reason behind the increase is still unclear. The most popular theory now, at least according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, is that the increased emphasis on hygiene in our culture has hampered the body’s ability to distinguish between harmful and harmless substances.
Especially because the exact source of allergies is still quite opaque, they can be difficult to medically address. A wide variety of medications are available over the counter, but these are only designed to control typical symptoms an allergy sufferer might face. Allergists have seen some success with steroids and immunological therapies, but a complete cure is still unattainable, lost somewhere over the rainbow.