“Thunderstorm-triggered Asthma Attacks Put under the Microscope in Australia”
by Katherine Kornei
Science, January 25, 2018
After a thunderstorm danced over Melbourne, Australia in November 2016, thousands of people were hospitalized and nine died. But lightning strikes weren’t to blame. Instead, deadly asthma attacks were responsible for the casualties, which included people with no prior personal history of the disease. Welcome to the new world of “thunderstorm asthma.”
This phenomenon, first identified in the 1980s, isn’t well known, even among meteorologists, says Andrew Grundstein, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia in Athens. Data are scare, but thunderstorm asthma is believed to be triggered by a “perfect storm” of heavy rainfall and electrical activity rupturing pollen grains and then gusty, down-drafting winds associated with thunderstorms sending those micron-sized grains flying deep into lung tissue. Melbourne, Australia seems to be a hot spot for thunderstorm asthma: it’s surrounded by grassland, is prone to thunderstorms, and is home to a large population (over 4 million people).
Now, researchers led by Grundstein have examined 7 thunderstorm asthma events in Melbourne from the 1980s through the present day. With the goal of predicting what weather properties are most likely to trigger thunderstorm asthma — which could help hospitals better prepare for a deluge of patients — they retrieved archival weather records from each event. They found that down-drafting winds were critical to spreading the broken pollen grains; the presence of cold fronts was also linked to thunderstorm asthma events.
These new results were presented this week at the American Meteorological Society conference in Austin, Texas (abstract link below), and the 2016 Melbourne case was published last year in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology (manuscript attached). I’ve chatted on the phone with Grundstein, and he’s happy to be interviewed further.
This subject is particularly timely because the Australian state of Victoria — home to Melbourne — recently started using a thunderstorm asthma warning system. Grundstein believes he and his team can help improve the algorithm to more accurately predict when these potentially deadly events will occur.
The incident in Melbourne made headlines in 2016 (links below), but I haven’t found a story that really digs into the science of what weather conditions create this deadly phenomenon, which I think would be of interest to Science‘s readers.
How about a story for a magazine?