A jump on sneeze season The warm winter is pushing buds from trees and pollen counts to April levels.

Posted: March 01, 2002

When Dr. Donald J. Dvorin did his daily tree-pollen counts this week, he found something astonishing.

The amounts were perfectly normal - for the first week in April. He even found pollen from pines, which typically shows up in May.

To allergy experts such as Dvorin, that means the sneeze season has already blown in and could peak by April Fool's Day, three to four weeks early.

It is the price to be paid for the warmest winter Philadelphia has experienced since the 1931-32 season, the Dust Bowl era. The average temperature from Dec. 1 to yesterday - the meteorological winter, as defined by the National Weather Service - was 41.3 degrees, about 7 degrees above average.

For the Northeast generally, this was the warmest winter in 107 years of recordkeeping.

Nature has noticed and has fast-forwarded the region into spring, drought or no drought.

Forsythia are blooming. Zebra swallowtail and mourning cloak butterflies are fluttering. Long-legged crane flies are buzzing. Trees are budding their brains out.

Dvorin, who submits his pollen reports to the National Allergy Bureau, said counts this week went over the 250 mark - short of extreme discomfort levels, but enough to be a nuisance.

"Several patients have come in saying they haven't felt like this in years," said Dr. David Lang, an allergy specialist at Thomas Jefferson University.

You don't need a pollen trap to know the trees are way ahead of schedule, said Paul Meyer, director of Morris Arboretum in Chestnut Hill.

The other day, he said, he was amazed to see sunlight hitting the flowers of a red maple on Germantown Avenue. The blossoms on a Japanese dogwood, which usually appear in late March, are opening at the arboretum.

"Even if we return to normal at this point, we're going to have a relatively early bloom," he said. "Spring is here."

So are some spring perennials: six-legged ones with wings.

"In my garden, I have a lot of winter aconites that have been blooming for weeks," Meyer said, "and the honeybees have been working them like crazy."

While walking near his home the other day in Tabernacle, Burlington County, Howard Boyd noticed a network of burrows surrounded by excavated sand - clearly the work of plasterer bees.

"I usually see them the first week in April," said Boyd, at 87 still active in the American Entomological Society.

Emilie Swackhamer, a horticulturist with the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Lehigh County, said she already had received a report of slimy white grubs - beetle larvae - feeding in someone's garden. Usually, the grubs while away the winter deep in the soil, waiting to become the rose-eating parasite that is their destiny.

"I don't remember ever having a call in February of white grubs that close to the surface," Swackhamer said.

"Anything that is more temperature-dependent is going to be out earlier," said Jon Gelhaus of the Academy of Natural Sciences. That would be beetles, flies and wasps.

It is impossible, however, to say exactly how the insect world will respond to this winter for a simple reason, said Roger Fuester, a U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist in Newark, Del.: "We have a year like this so seldom."

Meteorologists are uncertain why it happened, in defiance of the best computer models that taxpayer money can buy. Possible contributors include:

Sunspots. A longshot. The sun has been having a high old time since September, with solar storms six times more frequent than normal. Although the total amount of increased solar energy is negligible (0.2 percent), some researchers believe that even a subtle change can have a big effect.

"Pineapple Express." Definitely a player. The winter was dominated by a huge weather system in the central Pacific that affected weather across North America, damming cold air in Canada and shunting storm tracks away from our region.

Global warming. Always a suspect. But how does one explain the very mild winters of 1894-95 and 1931-32, which were even warmer than this one?

Whatever the cause, allergy sufferers are about to face the consequences. At this rate, extreme discomfort levels could arrive by the end of this month, rather than the end of next.

The pollen count is an estimate of how many grains pass through an area about the size of a refrigerator in a 24-hour period. Dvorin takes his readings from the roof of a building at Broad and Vine Streets, the site of his Asthma Center. He uses a machine that traps pollen on a microscope slide.

There is some good news, however. In all likelihood, the allergy season will not be as severe as last spring's, when record levels were reported.

Volumes of tree pollen vary from year to year, said Harvard University researcher Christine Rogers. Last year, the trees were in a reproductive frenzy - one they probably won't be able to duplicate this year.

Even trees have their limits.

Contact Anthony R. Wood at 610-313-8210 or twood@phillynews.com.

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