NASA Meets Public Health on the Juniper Pollen Project

SciStarter has a whole round-up of tree-related projects for you this season. Branch out with citizen science!

Juniperus scopulorum pollen cones

I’m fortunate not to suffer from airborne allergies where I live. But when I spent time in southern Mexico during college and couldn’t stop sneezing, I learned firsthand how bothersome allergy symptoms can be. For the 17 million Americans with hay fever, high pollen counts often mean misery.

For some, pollen isn’t just miserable—it can even be dangerous. When pollen gets into the lungs of people with health conditions like asthma, pneumonia, and cardiovascular disease, it can cause a life-threatening inflammatory response.

The Juniper Pollen Project from Nature’s Notebook aims to develop an accurate and useful model to predict the spring release of juniper pollen and to understand how wind spreads it across the southwestern and southern United States. The goal is to anticipate these pollen bursts and get the word out so at-risk individuals will be able to take preventative measures and safeguard their health.

Fortunately, researchers don’t have to look far for clues about what pollen release and dispersal patterns look like. Existing models that predict dust storms can be adapted to predict pollen bursts as well.

“Researchers at the University of Arizona and elsewhere have developed models that can predict in near-real-time the incidence, size, location, and movement of dust storms,” explains Dr. Theresa Crimmins of the USA National Phenology Network. “The models make use of real-time weather data and information from satellites to predict dust storm activity. Researchers recently realized that juniper pollen grains have very similar morphology to dust particles, and wanted to explore the possibility of adapting the dust models to pollen, with the intent of better informing public health alerts.”

Phenology is the study of the life cycle events of plants and animals. Juniper Pollen Project researchers take advantage of data from NASA satellites that can “see” how juniper cones are developing each year and adapt the dust model to predict when their pollen will be released. They combine that information with weather data to determine which way and how fast it will blow.

“The satellites can’t see the pollen itself in the air because the pollen grains are the wrong size, not like dust or fire where the particles are the right size to see,” says Dr. Jeffrey C. Luvall of the NASA – NSSTC Global Hydrology and Climate Center. “But they can identify the phenological stage of the juniper canopy. There’s a small signal that shows up when the cones are formed and ready to release their pollen. They produce billions of grains of pollen. It’s a huge number.”

Participants keep an eye on local trees to monitor the stages of pollen development: first appearance of pollen cones, opening of the cones, and full pollen release. They also make note of the appearance of unripe and ripe seed cones. Participants then enter their observations into the project database where they can be used to validate and refine the predictive model.

Data gathered from the project might one day feed into public health systems, alerting healthcare providers to local conditions that may endanger their patients. It may also be used to influence decision making around asthma and allergy alerts.

The USA National Phenology Network needs your help with this project. Citizen scientists in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and surrounding areas where juniper grows can contribute to the project. Visit the Juniper Pollen Project page on the Nature’s Notebook website for details about selecting a site, signing up as an observer, and taking and recording your observations.

Photo: USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Herman, D.E., et al. 1996. North Dakota tree handbook. USDA NRCS ND State Soil Conservation Committee; NDSU Extension and Western Area Power Administration, Bismarck.

Norene Griffin is a freelance writer and science enthusiast who regularly blogs about K-12 education, reading, and the neuroscience of learning. She is a passionate self-learner who often starts her investigations in the middle of the story, with the details, and comes back later to the generalizations of beginnings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities from the University of California, San Diego and later studied photography and 3D art at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her musician husband and son and a cat named Mr. Peepers.

Categories: Biology, Citizen Science, Ecology & Environment, Nature & Outdoors