As a local environmental company in Utah, that focuses on on-site remediation and environmental controls, we spend much time designing and implementing solutions to managed and reduce air pollutants from construction and industrial activities. During our efforts, we are often asked, “What exactly causes inversions in Utah? How do we avoid them?”.
Each year in Utah, especially in the winter we discuss the effect air pollution in Utah is having on us. During the winter, you can see the inversion, so we pay a lot of attention to it. During the summer, the inversion is just as bad, but because we can’t see it, we often aren’t as concerned.
What is an inversion?
Under normal atmospheric conditions, air is warmer near the ground and colder at higher altitudes. In a temperature inversion, the situation “inverts”, and cold air at the surface gets trapped under a layer of warmer air. During the winter, snow-covered valley floors reflect rather than absorb heat, preventing the normal vertical mixing of warm and cold air that keeps pollutants from building up to unhealthy levels at the surface.
Why are there inversions in Utah?
Because most of Utah is valleys that are surrounded by mountains, the geography has a “bowl” effect, so that when the weather warms it creates a layer over the top of the valley (bowl) trapping the air, and (sadly) the pollution below. Neither can escape, and they are caught there.
What are the sources of air pollution in Utah?
Dealing with air pollution is difficult as it is not one single source, but rather the combined of thousands and even hundreds of thousands individual source points group into major categories. Those categories are:
Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5)
Particulate Matter 2.5 refers to microscopic particles that have a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometers. During an inversion the warm layer of air in the valley acts as a cap and holds this material in the valley. This is the smog that covers the valley during the winter months.
Formed when nitrogen (Nox and volatile organic compounds (VOC) break apart in the presence of sunlight and high temperatures and recombine into new structures, creating ozone. Ozone is a harmful air pollutant that damages health and vegetation. It is partially responsible for the summertime smog and haze.
PM10 is the amount of particulate matter in the air. Mainly in the valley, this is dust particles are from crushing and grinding operations, wind-blown dust, and dust stirred up by vehicles on roads. At Anderson, as an environmental engineering firm specializing in site remediation, we spent a lot of time monitoring for PM10. On a typical reclamation project, we have a full-time water truck, air monitoring, dust control, and dust abatement.
Carbon Monoxide (CO2)
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is probably the main source of air pollution we are all aware of and is the main source of CO in the air in Utah. As average commute times increase in Utah, with the latest being 21.6 minutes expect to continue to see additional legislative measures to try and reduce air pollution.
Sulfur Oxides (S02)
Sulfur oxides (S02) comes from fossil fuels. They are released during the combustion process when sulfur (S) combines with oxygen (O2) to form SO2. The primary source of SO2 is the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal. SO2 forms acid rain and acid rain can damage lakes, plants, and even buildings.
In 1990, the Clean Air Act was amended to include specific programs that reduce the pollutants that cause acid rain. The successful implementation of this program is why we don’t really talk about acid rain all that much.
During inversions, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality predicts 14 percent of PM2.5 comes from solid fuel burning. In 2018, 111 days were registered as moderate air pollution in Utah County, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
That is why Utah has a host of bills and programs targeted at helping to replace old wood-burning stoves and fireplaces with electrical or natural gas fireplaces and furnaces.
Eight Tips for air pollution solutions in Utah
For those living in Utah, we should try to do our part in reducing the hazards of pollution, and that can start with some simple steps: Since the hot and cold weather inversions result in creating different hazards, not all of these are applicable around the year. Some things, such as fireworks and cutting the grass are specific to the summer, where there is equally a concern in air pollution in Utah, as well as the winter months, when cold starts may be more of an issue.