Desert dust

Dust in Arizona and other southwestern states is not just a concern for air quality – it can also carry the fungus that causes Valley fever, an infectious and potentially severe disease. Credit: NASA/Tom Gill

As the climate changes, drought and higher temperatures can contribute to increased dust storms across Southwestern U.S. states. These storms can spread Valley fever, a dangerous infection caused by a fungus that can be picked up from the soil and transported by strong winds. A NASA Earth Applied Sciences team is getting creative to track how dust storms can spread this potentially deadly fungus, helping epidemiologists, health care providers, and decision makers better protect their communities.

There are about 15,000 cases of Valley fever each year in the U.S. While working with local communities to study how this threat spreads, the NASA-funded team designed an innovative method to capture dust samples across a wide area: store-bought cake pans filled with marbles. As dust storms pass over the uneven surface of the marbles, some of the sediment falls through the layers of marbles to the bottom of the pan for researchers to collect and test for the fungus’s presence.

The team combines this information with NASA satellite data and high-end computer modeling to enhance current forecasting and surveillance activities related to dust storms and the airborne spread of Valley fever across the southwestern states.

Through the 1930s, dust storms in the Western U.S. famously destroyed farms and forced families to abandon homes. “Climate change is bringing that threat back,” warned Daniel Tong, who leads the project’s team. “Global climate models predict the west and southwest will become drier and drier, meaning we could have dust bowls – plural.” Tong says that with more dust storms there will be more instances of Valley fever – making this work more important than ever.

Learn more about how NASA satellite data can help decision makers understand the spread of Valley fever in the story Dust Storms, Valley Fever… and Cake Pans.

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