The Pima County Department of Environmental Quality has issued five air quality warnings in the last two weeks.
And Wednesday's forecast of high winds could lead to similar conditions. Those warnings mean air quality is way below its normal standard.
“Normal levels of particulate matter are, say, 30 micrograms per cubic meter or even less," said Beth Gorman with the Department of Environmental Quality. "What we were seeing, for instance, on this past Sunday, we saw 366 micrograms per cubic meter for an hourly reading.”
Low air quality days are becoming more frequent.
The increase in winds is part of a weather phenomenon that has hit the area as a remnant of the East Coast’s severe winter. A low-pressure trough has been pushing air from the east down to Arizona.
“What we’ve had basically is some weak storm systems, troughs, moving through us, which have some colder air," said Glen Sampson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. "So whenever that happens we get the wind.”
While the trough has meant several recent days of below-normal temperatures, it has also meant more wind. That wind is combining with a dry winter to pull dust into the air.
“We have an extreme drought over parts of Arizona, and much of Arizona is in a severe drought," Sampson added. "So when these systems come through, the ground is dry, there’s not a lot of vegetation to keep the dust down so it picks the dust up.”
Tucson has received less than an inch of rain so far this year.
Those dry conditions mean a lack of vegetation, as well as dirt that can easily be stirred and carried in the wind.
“We’re in a situation where the winds seem to be more frequent than in the past," Gorman said. "It especially seems to be stretching out longer.”
The conditions also mean more patients showing up for treatment in area medical facilities.
“This year we do see an increase in patients with asthma and allergy symptoms," said Tara Carr, allergist and immunologist at the University of Arizona Medical Center. "Some of that is attributable to the pollen since it’s been pollinating since about January or February here, and really it just gets worse before it gets better, but also the winds, the increase in dust, and if there is a wildfire nearby, the smoke from that will contribute to patient symptoms as well.”
For the area’s asthmatics and allergy sufferers, this has been a particularly rough spring.
“Patients with asthma have airways that are always hyper-sensitive and irritable, so pollen can certainly drive those asthma symptoms in patients, but there are also a lot of irritant reactions that patients can experience," said Carr, who is also director of the Adult Allergy Program at UAMC. "Some of that can be driven by dust or smoke, but some is triggered by wind, cold, heat, changes in temperature, changes in humidity.”
Luckily, one of the major complications for those with respiratory issues has yet to arise this year. Smoke from wildfires in the air could be a big problem in the coming months, however.
“One of the side effects of having this dry winter and windy conditions are extreme fire conditions where we have very dry fuels, very low humidity," Sampson said. "Whenever we have a wildfire start, it’s certainly conducive to growing rapidly.”
The good news is those conditions could be abated when monsoon season roles around. Early indicators are pointing toward a strong monsoon season.
But a single rain won’t be enough to end the dust storms.
“We would need a fair amount of rain to settle the dust at this point because one of the things that rain tends to do is provide more vegetation,” Sampson said.
Meaning the dry lightning and high wind speeds that can come with monsoons may make things worse before they get better.