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Andrew Comrie: from spores to smog, UA professor and administrator lives and breathes Southwest climatology
By Stephanie Doster | January 31, 2006
Andrew Comrie has what he calls “multiple research personalities.”
His pet project is deciphering the elusive relationship between climate and valley fever outbreaks, but the University of Arizona climatologist is just as easily captivated by air quality, wildfire, drought, monsoon, and other related research that examines how climate affects our environment and society.
And although he recently accepted the multi-faceted position of UA associate vice president for research, dean of the Graduate College, and director of Graduate Interdisciplinary Programs, Comrie said he plans to keep a foot in the classroom and a hand in his research lab.
Among his ongoing research projects, spore-borne valley fever and its links to climate and air quality have a special hold on Comrie, a professor of geography and regional development and atmospheric sciences.
Comrie caught the valley fever bug at an Easter egg hunt a decade ago, when a conversation with colleagues turned to talk of a soil-dwelling fungus that causes the disease.
“This thing just grabbed me. It was a chance to try to figure out more or less from scratch the role of climate in this disease,” he said. “Valley fever research involves doctors, geneticists, climatologists, soil experts—it’s an interesting interdisciplinary cross-section.”
In his latest study, Comrie analyzed health, precipitation, and dust pollution data from Pima County, Arizona, to create a model that promises several public health benefits, including the development of an early-warning system for the disease. He and colleague Steve Yool, a UA associate professor of geography, recently were awarded funding by the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a system designed to help public health officials and doctors anticipate when and where valley fever outbreaks are most likely to occur.
Comrie’s most recent findings, published in June 2005 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, show that if the typically arid period from April through June is unusually wet in a particular year, the number of valley fever cases will spike over the following 18 to 24 months.
Comrie explained that the findings could make predicting and managing outbreaks easier.
“Climate is the major factor in season-to-season and year-to-year variability of valley fever,” he said. “That’s a remarkable finding.”
Valley fever is endemic to the desert Southwest and can be fatal in rare cases. People, dogs, coyotes, cattle, snakes and a number of other animals can become infected if they inhale an airborne spore from the microscopic fungus.
Comrie has been a principal investigator since 1998 with the Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS), which has helped sponsor his climate and health work as well as a number of other projects.
“There is a team of us [in CLIMAS] who are trying to bridge the gap between climate science and society needs,” he said. “We get involved with helping people understand how climate affects them.”
Known as an educator and student mentor as well as a researcher, Comrie is teaching a graduate seminar on climate and health this spring. His link to students carries over into his new administrative role and into his Applied Climate for Environment and Society lab in the Harvill Building, where a team of eight to ten post-doctoral and graduate students—as well as the occasional undergrad intern—chip away at their various research projects.
Comrie and his student team are involved in several mapping projects designed to document climate and ozone conditions in a certain region, down to a fine scale, so that the general public and decision makers alike can keep tabs on smog and other climate conditions around them—“not just where the weather stations are,” he said.
A few of Comrie’s other projects include studying why the Southwest experiences droughts and monsoons; researching air quality and ozone—“the stuff in the air,” he says—to better monitor and control pollution; and looking at what climate conditions make wildfires burn more widely some years compared with others—information that could help fire managers predict when to expect larger fires.
“We are so closely connected to changes of climate and weather, and we are able to change weather and climate inadvertently, up to the global scale,” Comrie said. “[Climatology] is a fascinating area of study because it is such an important feature of our environment and how we survive in it.”