MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - We all know it’s very warm to simply miserably hot and humid for what seems like at least 6 months a year here in Alabama. Unfortunately, that is the perfect recipe for ticks, tick-related illnesses and poisonous plant growth.
But the number of ticks and poisonous plants has and will likely continue to rise across the state as our seasons continue to get warmer and more humid. Not only that, but the danger factor associated with both ticks and poisonous plants is also rising. That is according to scientists at Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists researching and reporting on the changing climate and its impact on the public.
It has gotten warmer overall here in Central and South Alabama -- even if it seems like it has been the same “hotness” year after year.
The map above specifically looks at the increase in the average temperature from January through May since 1970. Alabama has seen its average temperature during those five months rise 3-4 degrees. That means, generally speaking, warmer winters and springs have occurred across the state.
The result is a climate even more supportive of ticks, tick-related illnesses and poisonous plants not only here, but across the country as a whole. Not only that, but as January, February, March, April, and May get warmer, we see conditions that are more friendly to ticks and plants much earlier in the year.
The trend in U.S. Lyme disease cases since the mid-1990s is just one bit of data that shows how warmer winters and springs are supporting substantially more ticks and tick illnesses. Annual Lyme disease cases have risen from roughly 15,000 per year in the late 1990s to about 35,000 per year since 2015.
That is certainly a legitimate jump.
While Alabama may not see a huge number of Lyme disease -- or other tick-related illnesses -- compared to some northern states, our numbers are increasing at a rather alarming rate according to UAB.
Three of the most common tick-related diseases in Alabama are Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis and Lyme disease. According to data from UAB, total cases in Alabama for each of them have jumped rather significantly. For example, during that 8-year span Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever cases increased by a staggering 500%.
Again, while we aren’t seeing the numbers that states in the Northeast or Midwest are seeing in terms of total tick illnesses each year, a noteworthy increase compared to what we were once used to is still occurring.
It’s an increase that is happening in large part due to our winters and springs continuing to warm year after year.
The warmer conditions that we see earlier in the year are also supporting a rise in the presence and size of poisonous plants. That’s because of the higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which have been shown to stimulate the growth of larger, more toxic poison ivy plants.
“From around 1950 (300 ppm) to today (400 ppm), the increase in CO2 was associated with a leaf surface area [of poison ivy] more than doubling. The levels of toxic oil, known as urushiol, increased even more dramatically 一 by 173% in the same period.” That’s according to statistics from Climate Central.
It’s also a real possibility that the increase in CO2 levels supports larger, more noxious poison oak and poison sumac. Each of these three toxic plants are found all across Alabama.
Here’s what to look for while out on your next hike or outdoor adventure:
1. POISON IVY
- Eastern poison ivy: hairy, rope-like vine with 3 shiny green (red in the fall) leaves budding from one small stem
- Western poison ivy: low shrub with 3 leaves that does not form a climbing vine
2. POISON OAK
- Typically a shrub with 3 leaves similar to poison ivy
- May have yellow or green flowers and clusters of green-yellow or white berries
3. POISON SUMAC
- Woody shrub with stems that contain 7-13 leaves arranged in pairs
- May have glossy, pale yellow or cream-colored berries