How Pittsburgh’s Mild Winter Could Impact Pollen, Growing Seasons and the Emergence of Pests

The National Pest Management Association lists Pittsburgh in the top 10 cities at greatest risk for pest pressure into spring.
Window At 3 Rivers Outdoors Co


A mild winter to me means no lugging the shovel out to clear the dreaded white stuff from the sidewalk or scraping ice from my windshield. A cause for celebration in my eyes.

But, what does a mild winter mean for the emergence of pollen season/insufferable allergies, crops and pests?

National Weather Service Pittsburgh meteorologist Jason Frazier says the region is 19 inches below normal in precipitation levels.

“This year, we have recorded 14.5 inches of snowfall, and we typically have 33.5 inches of snowfall at this point in the season,” he says. “So, we are 19 inches below normal.”

Frazier says the region last saw such small amounts of snowfall in the winter of 1990-91.

The lack of snowfall and milder temperatures are also due to a La Niña climate pattern, which is based on sea surface temperatures along the Pacific Coast, adds Frazier.  

Anyone privy to the weather patterns in the Pittsburgh region knows we aren’t out of the woods yet. There is a high probability that I will need that shovel at some point throughout March, or even in April.Robert C. Pollock, Penn State Extension horticulture educator out of Indiana County, says the lack of snow we’ve experienced doesn’t affect crops as much as the cold snaps do.

“Crops need water to grow and for the most part, we have received a lot of rain this winter,” he says. “As long as the moisture can percolate into the ground, that’s good.”

What isn’t good is experiencing longer periods of the 60- and 70-degree temperatures that trick our plants and crops into budding before the cold snaps have ended.

“Where we will get into trouble is what will happen from now until May,” Pollock adds. “Last year, for example, it warmed up a little early and fruit buds came out. We got a cold snap and it did some damage. Some growers had part of a crop, some were unscathed and others didn’t have any apples at all.”



Pollock says the region almost always gets cold snaps through March and even April that blow south from Canada. 

“When we got those warmer temperatures last week, they didn’t last long enough to do any damage. It’s when the warmer temperatures linger long enough for the plants to lose some of their hardiness then drop down into the 20s where we start to have problems,” he says.

Pollock notes that young plants can be pushed up from the soil if the ground warms up and suddenly freezes, which can expose their roots and kill them. 

He says layers of mulch help to mitigate the temperature change and slow down the rate at which the ground freezes. Growing plants, fruits and vegetables in greenhouses, using fabric row covers or special irrigation processes can also add a layer of frost protection. 

Dr. Russell Traister, pediatric allergy/immunology specialist at Allegheny Health Network’s Pediatric Institute, says we may see an early pollen season thanks to the milder weather, and with pollen comes allergies.

“We aren’t seeing tree pollen yet, which is good,” Traister says. “The warmer temperatures are likely making indoor humidity higher, which may cause people who are sensitive to dust and indoor mold to have more symptoms than usual. The earliest I have seen tree pollen emerge in Western Pennsylvania is March.”

He adds drastic swings in temperature can cause noses to run, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the dripping faucet is related to allergies.

“If your nose is running and it’s not itchy, then it’s not caused by allergies. That is caused by the nerves in your nose,” he adds.

Traister hasn’t seen an increase in patients complaining about allergy symptoms yet this season. However, that could just mean they are treating them with over-the-counter antihistamines, nasal irrigation or nasal sprays.

If symptoms of itchy, watery eyes and nose, cough and headache or sinus pressure get worse, Traister advises seeking advice from your medical professional, such as allergy tests to determine what is causing the symptoms. Different medications or even shots can be ordered upon the results.


And what about pests?

The National Pest Management Association recently released its Vector Sectors list of the top 10 cities in the country to likely see an increased pest population this spring — and Pittsburgh is among them. So, be on the lookout for increased tick activity in the coming months.

“People aren’t the only ones enjoying the warmer-than-average winter season this year,” said Jim Fredericks, senior vice president of public affairs for the National Pest Management Association. “These warm and wet conditions create the perfect recipe for pests like ticks, mosquitoes and cockroaches to get an early start to their peak season. Despite being a nuisance, these pests are capable of transmitting diseases to humans and pose significant threats to our health and well-being.”


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