Winters are warming faster than any other season in the Triad and in North Carolina as a whole.
One of the most-obvious consequences of that trend has been the absence of snow.
Historically, the Triad averages 7.1 inches of snow per year, but the region hasn’t approached that total for more than 30 years. The closest during that period was the slightly more than 2 inches that fell in the winter of 2019-20.
But climate change also has compacted the period when it actually feels like winter. While that’s likely welcome news to folks who prefer short sleeves to parkas, it also means more misery for others.
“What we’re noticing is that people seem to have more issues with their allergies, and their symptoms related to allergies are extended from what we used to see in years past,” said Dr. John Card, lead clinician for internal medicine at Novant Health Adult Primary Care Harper Hill in Winston-Salem. “The weather seems to be warmer than it has been and staying warmer longer as well. And of course, that means that all of these allergens stay out there longer.”
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That’s not just an anecdotal observation.
On average, the period between first and last frosts annually in the Triad has lengthened by more than a month over the past half-century, according to data from Climate Central, a non-profit organization that tracks trends related to climate change.
Earlier spring and longer periods of freeze-free days mean that plants have more time to flower and release allergy-inducing pollen.
Seasonal allergies already can last from early spring through late fall. But warming temperatures and shifting seasonal patterns — both linked to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions — are expanding allergy season and its impacts on respiratory health.
The Triad’s freeze-free season is growing at twice the collective rate of more than 200 cities nationally monitored by Climate Central.
That’s one reason the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranked Greensboro 19th and Winston-Salem 29th on its 2023 list of 100 “allergy capitals” in the U.S.
“Climate change has caused the growing seasons to get longer and warmer, leading to higher tree, grass and weed pollen counts,” the AAFA noted in its report. “The warmer temperatures also get trapped in urban areas, which impact air pollution.”
About one-quarter of adults and 19% of children in the U.S. suffer from seasonal allergies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those allergies are more than just inconvenient. They are expensive to manage — through medication and doctor visits — and can trigger significant health conditions such as asthma.
“In general, when it comes to allergies and allergy season, the key is always to try to protect or prevent as much exposure as you can,” Card said. “I would encourage people to be aware of their outdoor exposure especially, but you can also have indoor allergens such as mold and dust and pet dander.”
John Deem covers climate change and the environment in the Triad and Northwest North Carolina. His work is funded by a grant from the 1Earth Fund and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation.