With off-the-charts pollen counts, allergy season comes early to Alaska

Michelle Theriault Boots
Bob Hallinen

If you suffer from allergies, perhaps you've already noticed: Anchorage has more tree pollen in the air than almost anywhere else on the planet at the moment.

On Friday, the city's air quality monitors recorded a tree pollen count of 2,862 grains per cubic meter of air.

For perspective: Anything over 100 is considered "high."

Friday's reading was off the charts for Anchorage and likely would rank among the highest in the world right now, said pediatric allergist Melinda Rathkopf, who practices at the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska.

"We rival anywhere, especially this week," she said.

She was speaking from the back deck of her Eagle River home, looking into a stand of birch trees. The city says about 95 percent of the pollen it counts comes from birch. Aspen, spruce and alder make up the rest.

"I just wiped off our outdoor table," Rathkopf said. "The rag was yellow and green with pollen."

Still, Anchorage is not quite so birch pollen-choked as Fairbanks, where "green-up" happens in a single, dramatic overnight flush.

Fairbanks traditionally records the highest pollen counts in the state -- or anywhere in the world, if the pollen count is particularly high.

On May 5, the "certified pollen counter" at the Tanana Valley Clinic in Fairbanks recorded a rate of 3,675.

Extreme pollen translates to misery for allergy sufferers and potential danger for asthmatics.

For people allergic to the proteins in tree pollen, noses run and eyes feel like sandpaper.

Staying indoors, keeping the windows closed and hosing off outdoor pets -- which can be magnets for pollen -- can help, says Rathkopf. So can an indoor air filter. Pollen levels are highest in the morning, so planning exercise or other gardening for late afternoon or evening can also ease exposure .

Because pollen can travel for hundreds of miles on the wind, avoiding a specific copse of trees probably won't do much, Rathkopf said.

"Not unless you get in a plane and fly somewhere very far away," she said.

For some asthmatics, extreme pollen levels trigger dangerous attacks.

"There's definitely an increase in hospitalization and emergency room visits," Rathkopf said.

Her patients have been showing up with symptoms for about a week and a half, she said.

"I think that we're having such an early, intense season caught a lot of people off guard."

The city usually doesn't even start measuring tree pollen until the second half of May. Tree pollen typically peaks around Memorial Day weekend.

But unusually warm and dry weather nudged trees to scatter their tiny pollen grains early this year, says Bill Ludwig, a lead forecaster with the National Weather Service's Anchorage office.

April was 1.5 degrees warmer than normal. May, so far, is a hefty 7 degrees above the average.

There's good news, though: Rathkopf says the sudden burst of pollen is probably peaking right about now and should subside over the next week or two.

Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.