Titterton: Ticks And Climate Change

Jul 7, 2017

Anyone who spends time in the woods knows that the tick check has become routine - as habitual as applying sunscreen or buckling up a seatbelt.

We examine hairlines, waistbands, and inside socks. At bath time, I scout my toddler’s soft belly and armpits and ears.

And sometimes, in the middle of the night, if the sheet happens to graze my skin I snap awake in a moment of pure tick paranoia.

But for me, tick awareness is nothing new. I grew up in East Lyme, Connecticut - ground zero for Lyme disease - so when I was a kid it was common. It seemed like at least one person in every family I knew had been diagnosed.

Ticks carried by a ballooning deer population and rodents with fewer natural predators to keep them in check spread the infection through the suburbs.

I got the bullseye rash in 1996 at a summer camp in New Hampshire. A round of amoxicillin later, I was fine. The doctor assured me I’d been bit in Connecticut, because no ticks were thought to be in northern New England. But by then, ticks were already moving north.

And they’re certainly here now. A warming climate may speed up ticks’ reproductive cycles, and in 2014, when the Environmental Protection Agency was still attuned to climate change, it marked the spread of Lyme disease as a climate change indicator.

To naturalist Sue Morse of Jericho there’s no question about the relationship between climate change and ticks. “There is definitely a correlation,” she says, “between greater numbers of deer and greater abundance and transmission of the tick.”

She notes that winters aren’t as hard as they once were, so “whitetail mortality in the face of a hard winter is not as great.” And while Vermont’s hunting culture helps to keep the deer population in check, she says it’s not enough.

I have friends who won’t go outside here without DEET and long sleeves, and every few weeks I hear of someone else going to the doctor to have a bite checked, or to seek help for the pain and fatigue of chronic Lyme.

I won’t let fear of ticks keep me from hiking, gardening, and showing my son the wonder of our natural world. But I take their threat seriously – as I do the greater threat of climate change they represent.