Which Areas Harbor Spores?
The cocci fungus flourishes in southwestern regions with dry weather and sandy soils, such as Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, parts of Texas and California’s San Joaquin Valley, which gave valley fever its name after a major outbreak there in 1930. Any disturbance in the soil — construction, oil exploration, archaeological digs, earthquakes or high winds — can stir up a cloud of spores.
However, no one is sure which environments the fungus favors. A site may become more or less hospitable to the spores as temperatures, moisture levels and soil ecology change.
Hoping to pinpoint the areas with fungus-friendly soils so residents can take extra precautions, physicists and geologists at California State University, Bakersfield, led by physicist Jorge Talamantes Rivera, are using satellite images to match features between sites where the fungus is endemic and other locations at risk for harboring spores. For example, they are comparing moisture content, soil types, crops and other vegetation in the Central Valley’s Kern County with environmental features at Sharktooth Hill, a popular fossil site outside Bakersfield where cocci spores are known to have caused illness.
If a strong link can be made between the fungus and local environmental conditions, Talamantes says the satellite maps will help people avoid exposure. At a site that’s suspected of harboring the fungus, or has the same environmental features as known contaminated sites, workers and researchers would then know to wear fine-dust masks or wet the soil before digging.