Jun 12, 2017 by

As the region dries out, infections from inhaling soil-dwelling fungus see stunning jump.

A massive dust storm sweeps across Phoenix in July 2012. CREDIT: AP/Mark Evans

The infection rate of Valley Fever in the Southwest United States has gone up a stunning 800 percent from 2000 to 2011, as dust storms have more than doubled.

New research directly links the rise in Valley Fever to the rise in dust storms, which in turn is driven by climate change. Valley Fever, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “a fungal lung infection that can be devastating,” is caused by inhaling soil-dwelling fungus. When the soil dries out and turns to dust, the wind can make the fungus airborne.

“Dust storms are found to better correlated with the disease than any other known controlling factor,“ a new study led by NOAA scientists concluded.

Dust storms spike with Valley fever cases. The largest number of dust storms from 1988 to 2011 are concentrated in the SW states reporting the highest numbers of fever cases.

Moreover, the scientists emphasize that “this study provides direct evidence that dust storms in the southwestern United States have become more frequent in the past decade.”

Climate scientists have long predicted — and are now finally observing — the drying out of the Southwest from climate change. My 2011 literature review in Nature called this “Dust-Bowlification,” a term the new study picks up.

In recent years, multiple studies studies have confirmed that warming-driven climate change is already drying the American Southwest and other parts of the globe, spurring dust storms.

A 2016 study found that the semi-arid Southwest has begun to enter a “drier climate state,” which matches findings from a 2015 study documenting an expansion of the entire world’s dry and semi-arid climate regions in recent decades as a result of human-caused climate change.

The changes in precipitation that can be attributed to the changing U.S. climate. The data ends in 2010, so this chart omits the brutal SW drying seen since then. CREDIT: NCAR.

The fact that climate scientists have turned out to be right about this drying trend means we must take seriously their current projections of widespread global megadroughts in the coming decades — including in our own breadbasket — if carbon pollution isn’t significantly curbed.

Here’s a 2015 NASA projection of what the normal climate of North America will look like on our current emissions path — an outcome made far more likely by President Donald Trump’s policies to prop up fossil fuels and his recent decision to withdraw from the Paris climate deal. The darkest areas have soil moisture comparable to that seen during the 1930s Dust Bowl.


Climate change is having a very immediate health effect on Americans — well beyond the alarming rise of Valley Fever. It has helped spread dengue fever in 28 states and is creating conditions for brain-eating parasites and a host of “neglected tropical diseases” to thrive.

But the biggest concern about modern Dust-Bowlification is the tremendous challenge of “feeding some 9 billion people by mid-century in the face of a rapidly worsening climate.” This is why climate action is so urgent and vital.

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