Under certain conditions, thunderstorms can induce an asthma attack in individuals who are susceptible. Since thunderstorm-induced asthma attacks have resulted in numerous fatalities in Australia, the government has developed a system that warns of these dangerous events.
Anthropogenic climate change refers to the role humans play in warming the Earth through various activities, mainly the emission of greenhouse gases. Secondary to a warming Earth, there have been increased incidences of storms, natural disasters, and droughts in the past few decades resulting in devastating consequences such as destruction of infrastructure and millions of deaths. A seemingly mild effect of climate change is an increased number of thunderstorms worldwide. However, in some regions, these thunderstorms are also causing dozens of fatalities and thousands of hospitalizations. Scientists now understand that a thunderstorm, under certain conditions, can trigger an asthma attack in susceptible individuals. A recent article in Science describes this phenomenon in Australia and what scientists are doing about it.
How Do Thunderstorms Induce Asthma Attacks?
A thunderstorm-induced asthma attack may seem counter-intuitive, as rain normally relieves allergy symptoms by “washing” pollen out of the air, yet under certain conditions the opposite is true. A recent study, including seven thunderstorms that triggered asthma attacks in Melbourne, Australia, revealed factors necessary for creating this type of storm: high pollen levels, multiple storm cells, and high winds. Rising updrafts carry large amounts of pollen grains kilometres into the sky where humidity is high. The pollen grains absorb moisture, swell, then burst to release hundreds of tiny pollen grain fragments into the air. The fragments ride downdrafts to the Earth’s surface and spread laterally over far distances. When people inhale the tiny pollen fragments, they easily enter small airways in the lower respiratory tract, which can cause an inflammatory response in people with asthma, allergies, or a respiratory infection.
Thunderstorm-induced asthma attacks are most common in Australia but have also been reported in North America, Europe, and Middle Eastern countries. Australia experiences more of these events because of huge pollen-producing rye fields adjacent to highly populated cities and a climate that produces regular thunderstorms. Thunderstorms that trigger an asthma attack in susceptible individuals are generally rare, occurring in Australia only a few times per decade. However, they do result in significant morbidity and mortality. For example, a thunderstorm in November 2016 resulted in the deaths of at least nine people and thousands more were rushed to hospitals for medical treatment. These storms are expected to increase in frequency as temperatures continue to rise.
Developing Technologies to Predict Specific Thunderstorms
Regions of Australia are developing technologies to better predict these thunderstorms so susceptible individuals can prepare and protect themselves, hopefully preventing an asthma attack. In 2017, the state of Victoria invested $15.7 million towards a warning system that alerts possible asthma-triggering three days in advance. This system counts pollen grains in eight locations throughout the state, then combines this information with temperature, humidity, and wind to predict the chance of a thunderstorm able to produce an asthma attack from occurring. The state of Victoria aims to warn civilians of potential events allowing time for susceptible individuals to prepare by acquiring the necessary medication and planning to stay indoors.
Written by Mallory Wiggans
Reference: Kornei, K. (2018). Thunderstorm-triggered asthma attack put under the microscope in Australia. Science. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/01/thunderstorm-triggered-asthma-attacks-put-under-microscope-australia