Climate change may be helping outdoor insects, poison ivy thrive

by Lissa Blake

Outdoor enthusiasts, be prepared.
In the ongoing effort to try to connect the dots on the effects of global climate change, a report just released from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) suggests global warming is contributing to an increase in deer tick and mosquito populations, in addition to a stronger, more potent strain of poison ivy and higher pollen counts. (See for full report)
Last week, the NWF facilitated a conference call with state media, attended by Joe Wilkinson, past president of the Iowa Wildlife Federation; Frank Szollosi, NWF regional outreach; and Dr. Yogesh Shah, associate dean for global health at Des Moines University. The discussion came following the release of NWF’s report, entitled “Ticked Off: America’s Outdoor Experience and Climate Change,” which suggests a number of effects climate change will have on outdoor recreation.
“Climate change is bringing about stressful new changes to our outdoor world, and we need to take notice,” warns the report.

Wilkinson said Iowa will not be immune to the problem. “Climate change is not so subtle anymore. By now everybody’s heard of it and it’s become a matter of what are we going o do about it and when,” he said.
Shah cited the spike in Iowa cases of the West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne illness, over the past three years. West Nile cases in Iowa are up 400 percent compared to previous years, up from nine cases in 2011 to 44 cases in 2013, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
In addition, the report says increased levels of carbon dioxide are leading to an increase in the density and toxicity of pollen and the toxicity of poison ivy.
“The pure numbers are increasing, plus the viruses are living longer in each mosquito and tick also,” said Wilkinson.
In addition, mild winters in parts of the U.S. mean temperatures aren’t getting cold enough to kill ticks during the winter months.

Shah said it is likely the problem will get worse before it gets better and suggested in the near future the U.S. may be looking at other mosquito-borne illnesses Americans once considered “exotic.” “Like Dengue or Chikungunya, both which cause fever and headaches,” said Shah. “These will not be staying in just Africa and Asia.”

Locally, Sheryl Darling-Mooney of Public Health for Allamakee County reminds the public to be vigilant when spending time outdoors. She suggested a number of ways to help decrease the likelihood of a tick bite or attachment, including:
• Treating dogs and cats for ticks
• Wearing insect repellent containing DEET (not recommended for children under two months of age)
• Wearing Permethrin-treated clothing
• Checking yourself for ticks after being outdoors, especially after being out in the woods
• Showering soon after coming indoors.

Environmentally, there are a number of precautions people can take to minimize ticks and mosquitoes on their property:
• Get rid of standing water by emptying out pools, bird baths, bottoms of flower pots and buckets
• Discard old tires and drill a hole in them to allow water to drain
• Eliminate tall weeds or grass - mosquitoes like the shade
• Use good-fitting screens on doors and windows.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) make additional recommendations, including:
• Avoid perfumed soaps, shampoos and deodorants
• Tuck pants into socks or boots
• Remain still if a single insect is flying around
• If attacked, seek shaded areas or shelter.

In addition to protecting oneself, the "Ticked Off" report suggests a number of ways people can “take a stand” and help protect the planet and slow the effects of climate change. These include reducing carbon pollution from the largest sources by supporting the Clean Power Plan proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past June and other pollution control standards; investing in wildlife-friendly renewable energy, such as geothermal, wind, solar and sustainable bioenergy, along with improvements in energy efficiency; and safeguarding wildlife by adopting climate-smart conservation practices that will help wildlife survive and adapt to a changing climate, such as maintaining or re-establishing habitat connections among parks, wildlife refuges and other protected habitats.