Why are the pollen counts LOW this year in Canberra?

So why have the pollen counts been so LOW for the spring of 2017 in Canberra? This is a question that I often hear this year and it's a good one. The first thing to point out is that the pollen counts that are reported by CanberraPollen are only related to Grass pollen, and this has been remarkably low (consistently <20 grains/m3 and often <10grains/m3) during the current spring monitoring season that began on 1st September 2017. In contrast, the levels of other pollen types that are know to cause allergic responses such as the Plane, Birch, Oak, Elm and Ash trees, all widely planted throughout Canberra’s urban landscape, have exhibited high pollen levels through the season. In order to understand the drivers of pollen abundance in our atmosphere we need to take a closer look at where the pollen is coming from and what’s been happening with the weather over the last couple of months.


Where does the grass pollen come from on HIGH pollen days?

The majority of grass pollen in the air of Canberra is derived from the extensive pastures that are found beyond our northern, western and eastern suburbs. An analysis of the grass pollen count versus wind direction across the last 3 years (Figure 1) shows that wind direction and speed play critical roles in determining HIGH pollen days in Canberra. Strong winds between the Westerly and Northerly wind sector bring high levels of grass pollen to Canberra during the Spring season, whereas, the southerly and easterly winds appear to bring less grass pollen, possibly due to the dominance of native forest covered mountain ranges in these directions. 


Figure 1. Windrose analysis of daily grass pollen concentrations versus maximum wind gust speed and direction (using the r package “polarplot” with assistance from Dr Larissa Schneider).


Why have we not had any HIGH grass pollen days so far this year?

In order to answer this question we need to take a look at what’s been happening with the weather over the last couple of months and how this might be different from previous years. The winter months in Canberra where considered to be relatively dry by the Bureau of Meteorology, which appears to have reduced the productivity of grassland growth into the spring season. The October Vegetation Index confirms that in October 2017 the ACT and region are experiencing below average vegetation growth this spring (Figure 2). This can be compared to the same time for October 2014, when grass pollen counts reached some of the highest levels recorded, and there was above average growth.


Figure 2. Vegetation Index Anomaly for October 2014 and 2017 shows the above average and below average vegetation growth, respectively, around the northern and eastern agricultural pasture lands around the ACT.


Finally by comparing the wind conditions and rainfall over the 6 weeks of 1st October to the 11th November for the current and previous years we can see that some key climate conditions may be causing the LOW grass pollen counts for 2017. Figure 3 compares previous low grass pollen years (2007) and high grass pollen years (2014) with the current season (2017) and shows that key climate indicators are likely to be driving the low grass pollen numbers. These include: 

  • Lower numbers of days with northerly to westerly winds
  • Greater number of rain days
  • Greater total rain fall
  • El Niño conditions during the winter-spring period leading to below average vegetation growth index.


Figure 3. Climate influences on grass pollen counts from 2017 (1st Oct – 11th Nov) compared to previous pollen monitoring years (2007-2010, 2014-2016). Climate data derived from BOM tables (1st October to 11th November for each year) and the SOI Index for Oct-Nov.


It appears that we really are experiencing a LOW grass pollen season this year and that the climatic conditions can explain these patterns. But what about those people who are still suffering from hay fever symptoms this spring. Well the explanation may lie with the type of pollen or other allergenic particles that you are allergic to. The high levels of tree pollen plus days of high allergenic spore (Alternaria) counts that have been recorded this season are likely to provide the explanation. One way of finding out what you are responding to is to download and participate in the new AirRater survey that informs you about daily pollen types (15 different types) across Canberra (http://airrater.org) and always consult your doctor for information on managing your hay fever.

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Thats all for 2016-2017 Spring-Summer season

Dear CanberraPollen App users,

This is our last day of pollen monitoring for the 2016-2017 Spring-Summer season. We will be providing an account of the season in the coming weeks, so keep following us for research updates, news and events that might be of interest to you. We will commence counting again on the 1st September 2017. In the meantime please check out our pollen calender to discover what is flowering and when it is flowering in the ACT.


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Peak pollen season could spell trouble for Canberra's solar panel owners

The pollen count has started earlier this year (September 1, 2016) and the new data is showing some interesting early spring trends. One of these is reported in the Canberra Times today http://bit.ly/2cwdrYf. What might we expect to see this September?

  • Tracking the rise and fall of Pine (Pinaceae) pollen and Cypress Pine (Cupressaceae). September is a month that both of these plant families are shedding abundant amounts of pollen (see http://bit.ly/2cCUfUJ and http://bit.ly/2c2l5Us for more details).
  • Other trees that are producing pollen at the moment are Elms (Ulmus sp.), Willow (Salix sp.) and Birch (Betula sp.).
  • We expect to pick up the beginning of the Grass pollen season sometime during the second half of September.


Yellowish "dust" floating in puddles along a footpath at ANU after rain is actually Pine/Cypress pollen.


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First HIGH grass pollen day for Canberra in 2016

The Canberra Pollen Monitoring Program recorded its first HIGH (>50 grass grains/m3) grass pollen count this spring on the 3rd November, which is significant for a number of reasons. The first is that it marks the beginning of the peak period of grass pollen production in the region, a period when grasses are flowering in abundance and producing enough pollen to generate widespread hay fever and asthma suffering in the local population. The second is that it has been preceded by a period of relatively wet and cool temperatures (particularly night time temperatures) that may have suppressed the onset of high pollen production in the grasses over September to early October. Nevertheless we have seen MODERATE (>20 grass grains/m3) grass pollen counts recorded as early as the 6th October which can be considered the the beginning of the grass-related hay fever season in Canberra. What this also means is that there are likely to be more HIGH grass pollen days in the coming weeks as the warmer and drier weather will be well suited to high pollen production, and this pollen will be particularly abundant in the air when there are strong NW to NE winds blowing.

The graph below shows the relationships between rainfall, grass pollen count and hay fever symptom score for the Canberra region since 1st Septempber to the 3rd November 2016. Our hay fever survey certainly appears to confirm the general principle that when grass pollen increases in the air we breath people suffer more from hay fever symptoms. While this may seem to show the "bleedin' obvious" it is important to try to understand when people begin to suffer, how many people are suffering and where they are sufferring the most. These are some of the main aims of the Canberra Pollen Monitoring Program and we will be bringing you further updates and results from our work over the season.

First HIGH grass pollen day for Canberra in 2016 recorded on 3rd November. This coincides with the highest Symptom Score (average) recorded via our @CanberraPollen app. The high rainfall during September and into October may have played a role in suppressing grass pollen production this year. * marks Moderate to High grass pollen days and these correspond to days when the Sypmtom Score increases.

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Canberra is still the nations Hotspot for Hay fever – but not quite all of it!

Over the past 2 years (2014-2015) the Canberra Pollen app has been downloaded and used by over 11,000 people. The information generated from the mobile survey has allowed us to pinpoint suburbs within the ACT and immediate surrounds that recorded the most severe hay fever suffering during the 2014 and 2015 season (see Figure 1). The survey responses were broken down into five categories (ranging from no symptoms to severe symptoms) and these are displayed as the deviation from the mean response across the region. So those areas that are below zero (blue and green suburbs) all below average symptom responses. The suburbs that are yellow represent the mean response in the survey, and the suburbs that are orange or red all registered high level (above average) symptoms. The results show that there are a number of suburbs that continue to be well above the regional mean and can be considered as hotspots for hay fever (red suburbs). The hotspot suburbs include: Casey, Forde, and Franklin in Gungahlin; Melba, Holt and Higgins in Belconnon; Dickson and Reid in northern Canberra; and Macarthur, Gilmore, Isabella Plains and Calwell in Tuggeronong.

Most of these suburbs were reported last year as hotspots for hay fever, so the fact that in the second year of this survey we see the same areas recording hotspots for hay fever suggests that there may be some areas in the city that are worth avoiding if you suffer from severe hay fever or are susceptible to asthma attacks. The reason why these areas are hotspots remains unclear. Environmental factors are the likely to be at least in part causing these hotspots. The proximity of the Gungahlin, Belconnen and Tuggeronong suburbs to open pasture (grasslands) and pine plantations (particularly near Macarthur/Gilmore/Calwell and Holt/Higgins) may be a factor in those areas. The inner city suburbs of Reid and Dickson may be distant from grasslands but they have many streets lined with some highly allergenic trees such as the Plane Tree and Oak Trees.

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