Itchapalooza 2013: Climate Change Fuels Poison Ivy Boom

The itch weed is loving the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.

Poison Ivy—Getting a Big Boost from Global Warming

Please, trust us. Stay away from poison ivy. (Photo: Diego3336/Creative Commons via Flickr)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

It takes a Pennsylvania journalist to educate me on why so much poison ivy is growing along the paths and up the trees in my home state of New York this summer.

Global warming is literally changing the chemistry of poison ivy; experts believe it has doubled in strength since the 1960s.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it’s global warming, stupid! And apparently it’s a countrywide problem.

It also partially explains why there have been more bears walking through the backyard this summer, since they love to munch on the leaves soaked with urushiol, the name for the oil or sap that lives on the skin of poison ivy and is such a pain for 85 percent of people.

An increase in carbon dioxide encourages plant growth like some kind of super fertilizer. And for some yet uncertain reason, poison ivy is proving especially greedy when it comes to CO2, sucking it down and spreading through fields and strangling trees at a record pace.

According to field studies by the Department of Agriculture, as long as CO2 levels keep rising, poison ivy will keep spreading, in some places virulently. It’s not just the number of plants that are growing, but also the potency of its poison. Global warming is literally changing the chemistry of the poison ivy; experts believe it has doubled in strength since the 1960s.

Poison ivy is not the only plant being impacted by global warming. Other studies, one by the biology department at Southwestern University in 2010, shows how an increase in CO2 increases photosynthesis in plants and encourages some to grow 30 to 40 percent faster. This is not necessarily a good thing. Even as they are growing faster, nitrogen levels in the plants are decreasing—as are othere important minerals, including calcium, magnesium and phosphorous—which makes them drastically less nutritious for the herbivores (and man) that depend on them.

So, this is our future. Dirtier air and faster growing, evil-intended plants. I’m guessing next we’ll see news stories confirming that cockroaches and rats somehow thrive on increases in CO2. (Somewhat to the contrary, if you believe that superstorms, like Sandy, are encouraged by global warming, they are proving to be hard on rat populations. The rat population in NYC went down post-Sandy, due to drowning.)

Be careful out there! Poison ivy’s ill effects aren’t only gained from brushing up against it in the woods. If its vines are burned or even churned up by a weed whacker or lawn mower, the poisonous oil can become airborne and impact susceptible lungs.

What can you do about this advance, if you’re among the majority badly infected by poison ivy, the itchy, pimply blisters of which can last for several days?

First and foremost, learn to identify the plant. And then stay far away from it. Truth is, most people mistake it for something innocuous, even marijuana.

Some Forest Service employees spray antiperspirant deodorant on exposed skin because the aluminum chlorohydrate may help prevent the oil from penetrating skin. (A human form of geo-engineering!)

At our house, where others are very susceptible, we keep a big, red bottle of Tecnu soap next to the sink all summer long, and at the merest inkling of a brush-up there’s a rush for cold water and soap. (If you think you’ve made contact, move fast. The oil on the leaves, which is the “poison” in poison ivy, often doesn’t sink into skin for about 15 minutes.) Jumping in a cold pond or pool is a possible instant remedy; Calamine lotion and ice can work after the fact.

It’s not like the measles or chicken pox. Apparently, once you’ve had an allergic reaction to poison ivy, you become even more at risk.

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