Winter inversions lower air quality below EPA standards

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When people think of winter time, snow, skiing and Santa often come to mind. In Utah, another winter phenomenon has residents less enthralled: inversions.

Inversions occur when the air closer to the ground is colder than the air higher in the atmosphere, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. With the mountains surrounding Utah’s valleys, the warm air traps the cold air inside, keeping the air from circulating. 

This lack of circulation means that any pollution that comes from transportation, heating or energy production remains trapped within the valley, steadily decreasing the air quality.

Utah DEQ director Bryce Bird said once there is “snow on the ground and cold air in the area, that’s when we typically see days or even weeks of building of air pollution concentrations.” 

When the skies are clear over Utah’s valleys during the winter months, the air quality decreases as pollution remains trapped within the valley walls. 

“If we have a series of storms, like we had this winter, then we don’t have that chance for that cold pool to set up and that level of air pollution to increase,” Bird said. The air is churned up as winter storms sweep across Utah. 

Air quality

The U.S. government established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The EPA divided the U.S. into 10 different regions to better manage the country. Utah is one of six states within Region 8, along with Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. 

Among other things, the EPA tracks particulate matter (PM) that is released into the air. According to the EPA’s website, things like smoke, soot, dust and dirt are all considered to have a PM rating of 10, since they are big enough to be seen with the naked eye. Smaller particles also exist, with a PM rating of 2.5. These particles are too small to be seen with the naked eye, but are still hazardous to those that breathe them in.

A visual representation shows the size of particulate matter. Particles smaller than 10 microns across can enter a person’s circulatory system via the lungs and damage internal organs. (Environmental Protection Agency)

Scott Jackson, the air quality planning branch manager at the EPA, said “the Utah PM2.5 air quality for the Wasatch Area continues to be a high priority” for the EPA. The EPA works with the DEQ in Utah to combat the environmental issues that occur throughout the state.

According to Utah’s DEQ Air Quality website, as of Feb. 2 at 10 a.m., Utah county had a recorded PM2.5 rating of 23.6 micrograms per cubic meter over the last 24 hours. There is currently a ban for all campfires, fire pits and fire rings for Utah county to prevent additional particulates from entering the atmosphere. 

On Jan. 6, the EPA announced a proposal that would decrease the healthy limits for particulate matter. This would require state governments to update their state implementation plans to account for the reduced standard.

BYU campus is cold during winter semesters. Inversions are a Utah winter phenomenon that occur when the air closer to the ground is colder than the air higher in the atmosphere. (Preston Crawley)

Impact on BYU students

During the winter months, college students often find themselves trapped inside due to the cold temperatures. When they do venture out, they are likely breathing in polluted air released by public and private transportation, energy production and home heating. BYU sophomore Mya Simpkins has lived in Utah for two years, and has noticed the smog that occasionally fills the air in Utah Valley.

“I don’t think that breathing that in is good for me,” Simpkins said. She said students rely on cars so often that it can be hard to find places to park, and that public transportation, another option for students in Provo, takes “forever.”

BYU sophomore Myler Yee lived in California before moving to Utah a year and a half ago. He said he did not understand why there was so much smog in the valley. He said that “in California there’s a lot of smog” due to the many buildings in the cities, but he has still noticed the smog here, where there are “not as many things close together.”

There are ways to help combat the air pollution that occurs. Jackson said students could take either carpools or public transportation to help reduce their own emissions. When going to an activity, “if there’s an option of taking a shuttle bus to reduce the number of cars to get there, that would be a good thing,” Jackson said.

According to Bird, engine cold starts account for 80-90% of emissions for an entire trip. Bird suggested that residents should chain errands that require a car together, so the engine remains warm between trips. By keeping the engine warm, less energy is expended to start the car, which means that less emissions are released into the atmosphere.

By reducing the number of cars on the road and participating in activities that do not use gasoline engines such as sledding, BYU students can do their part to help improve the air quality for those around them.

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