Hikers in Arizona this Monday attempting to breathe in nice, fresh desert air got instead lungfuls of desiccated topsoil and spores of the fungus Coccidioides immitis, which can cause a dangerous condition called Valley Fever that involves lung abscesses.
Yes, it's haboobs again. The Southwest weather phenomenon, also seen in the arid Middle East, last made headlines on July 5 when a towering one perhaps more powerful than any in the last three decades thoroughly powdered Phoenix. (Haboob photo gallery.) On Monday afternoon, three more dust storms rolled over Arizona with cloud tops approaching 4,000 feet. They grounded airplanes, knocked out power to a couple thousand people and gave a little more credence to those who believe climate change is increasing the world's yearly diet of haboob.
This trio of sandstorms arrived in the midst of a particularly dry North American monsoon season, a climate pattern that brings moist Pacific and Gulf of California air over the United States' intermountain region plus a good portion of Mexico. The dusky, ochre-colored dust reduced visibility in some cities to a squinty 60 feet and compounded the day's utter misery by adding stinging particles on top of 112-degree heat.
Oh, and by adding those deleterious fungal spores, which live in the first few inches of desert topsoil and are drawn aloft by haboobs such as this. Certain doctors believe these cacti-rustling weather monsters are jacking up the incidence of Valley Fever in 2011, not a great thing when you read about the three forms of fever described by the National Institutes of Health:
• Acute pulmonary coccidioidomycosis. It almost always mild, with few or no symptoms, and goes away without treatment. The incubation period -- the time between breathing in the spores and becoming sick -- is 7 to 21 days.
• Chronic pulmonary coccidioidomycosis can develop 20 or more years after initial infection. Infections (lung abscesses) can form and rupture, releasing pus (empyema) between the lungs and ribs (pleural space).
• Disseminated coccidioidomycosis is a widespread form of the disease. Infection spreads to other parts of the body, including the skin, brain, bones, and heart. Meningitis occurs in up to half of all people with disseminated coccidioidomycosis.
So if you ever see one of these babies looming on the horizon, as in the below video of Monday's haboobining, it's probably best to duck indoors for half an hour lest you imperil your precious pleural spaces.