Dr. Daniel Tong Featured at Arizona Dust Storm Workshop

March 2019

ARL scientist Dr. Daniel Tong presented, “Satellite-Aided Regional Dust Forecasting for Valley Fever Surveillance, Highway Accident Prevention, and Air Quality Management in the Southwestern United States” at the eighth annual Arizona Dust Storm Workshop on March 5, 2019. Organized by the National Weather Service (NWS) Weather Forecast Offices (WFOs) in Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona, the event was held at Central Arizona College in Coolidge, AZ. Two distinct audiences comprised the vast majority of the somewhere between 50 and 100 attendees: county, state, and industry executives responsible for air quality management in the weather, health, and transportation sectors, and experts responsible for real-time forecasting to the public and media.

Dr. Tong was invited to speak as a recognized dust expert whose research into Valley Fever – a fungal infection caused by organisms that live in soil – has been highlighted in multiple forums and countries following the 2017 publication of, “Intensified dust storm activity and Valley fever infection in the southwestern United States,” a paper on which he is the lead author. Arizona is the number one endemic area for Valley Fever cases each year, and as the land becomes drier dust storms will become even more prevalent. Dust also poses an enormous highway safety concern in the state, especially along Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson. According to the NWS, over 1,500 dust-related accidents have occurred in Arizona in recent decades, including a 100-car pileup along Highway I-10. Dust storms are one of the deadliest weather hazards in the Southwest, with a death toll exceeded only by extreme heat and flooding.

Residents and travelers in and around Arizona may see the most immediate benefit from the cutting-edge research being performed by Dr. Tong and his ARL colleagues, who recently began developing a model capable of forecasting dust 48 to 72 hours in the future – a timeline that would enable it to serve as a much-needed early warning system. This new model, which could eventually be used by WFOs and the media, aims to use high-resolution satellite data to improve accuracy. Researchers expect the data to exponentially increase model forecasting capability by moving to a 100 times finer resolution (from 12 kilometers (km) by 12 km down to 1 km by 1 km) – essentially providing the ability to create a forecast for an individual farm. ARL is teaming with local forecasters and the University of Arizona to accomplish this considerable challenge.

ARL’s overall plan includes three elements, the first of which is Valley Fever. ARL researchers will provide environmental data regarding land use, precipitation, and dust to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for use in building an outbreak prediction model for Valley Fever. Next, ARL will develop a new product called Visibility Forecast that will predict changes in visibility along highways due to dust storms, allowing forecasters to foretell when and where storms are likely to happen and to disseminate the information in an attempt to reduce traffic and give drivers more space on the roadways. Discussions have already begun regarding the future creation of an automated messaging system capable of advising motorists to “pull aside and stay alive” during severe weather. The third, and final, piece of the model is air quality management. ARL will continue to provide national numerical forecast guidance used to inform air quality offices responsible for issuing public forecasts. Due to the frequency of dust storms in Arizona, air quality levels in the state frequently exceed standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


Addressing Arizona’s Dust Woes

Ongoing projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation, state of Arizona, and industry aim to figure out ways to mitigate the dust storm problem and increase highway safety for all drivers. Meanwhile, a large, multi-agency collaboration led by Dr. Tong is working to tackle the dust problem at a wholesale level. Participants include NOAA, NASA, USDA, CDC, the Departments of Transportation for both Arizona and New Mexico, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, Arizona counties (Maricopa, Pinal, Pima, etc.), and even some Tribal Nations whose reservations don’t possess dust monitors.

Dr. Tong standing at a podium in front of a large wall screen projecting a slide on trends of dust storms.
Dr. Tong presenting at the Arizona Dust Storm Workshop on March 5, 2019. Photo by: Andrew Nicla. Used with permission.