UTEP Dust Expert Collaborates on National Research on Dust Storms, Valley Fever

People living in the American Southwest have experienced a dramatic increase in windblown dust storms in the last two decades, likely driven by large-scale changes in sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean drying the region’s soil, according to new research led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

With the increase in dust storms, scientists also have documented a spike in valley fever, an infectious disease caught by inhaling a soil-dwelling fungus found primarily in the Southwest.

“We’ve known for some time that the Southwest U.S. is becoming drier,” said lead author Daniel Tong, a scientist at NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory and George Mason University. “Dust storms in the region have more than doubled between the 1990s and the 2000s. And we see that valley fever is increasing in the same region.”

Thomas Gill, Ph.D., UTEP
Thomas Gill, Ph.D., UTEP

“Valley fever is an under-recognized but serious infectious disease in the Southwest, including El Paso,” said Thomas Gill, Ph.D., UTEP professor of geological sciences and environmental science and engineering and study collaborator. “Although the factors which cause valley fever outbreaks are complex, this research shows that dust and climate clearly play a role in its occurrence. By showing that large-scale climate factors such as sea surface temperature can start a chain reaction through drought to dust storms, it can be used as a tool for advance surveillance of potential health and safety impacts. There’s already evidence that diseases in other parts of the world, such as meningitis and Kawasaki disease, may be related to wind transport: valley fever in [the] Southwest … also has to be on the list,” he said.

The new research is the first to be based on a long-term data record NOAA is developing to track the history of dust storms in the United States.

“Over time, analyzing the data will help us better predict dust storm patterns and answer the question of whether increased dust storms are a natural variation or could precipitate a larger shift in the area to desert,” Tong said.

Better prediction of dust storms can help the agriculture, aviation and transportation industries, as well as healthcare. Dust storms not only carry the fungus that can cause valley fever, but also can severely damage aircraft engines, disrupt land transportation and erode and damage farms already hit by drought.