Researchers Take to the Sky to Solve Inversion

By Mackenzie McDermott

Every year during the winter months, Salt Lake City’s urban emissions get trapped in cool air pools as part of a phenomenon called inversion. This concentrated exposure to air pollution leads to a 42 percent higher rate of emergency room visits for asthma and a 4.5 percent higher risk of acute ischemic coronary events.

Looking for answers, the Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study (UWFPS) sent out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Twin Otter aircraft to measure gas and aerosol data that would help researchers decipher more in-depth how inversion works and how to reduce it. The planes flew from Jan. 15 to Feb. 14 and completed 15 separate flights to collect the information, with $130,000 of legislative seed money and a $2 million leverage of equipment.

The University of Utah teamed up with the Division of Air Quality, NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado Boulder, the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, University of Washington, University of Minnesota, Utah State University and Brigham Young University.

This team is working together to “increase scientific understanding of the complex atmospheric chemistry that drives the formation of unhealthy levels of particulate matter (PM) in Utah’s nonattainment areas. The UWFPS will supplement ground monitoring data with atmospheric data from aloft where the particulate formation occurs,” read a background write-up for the study.

The 2.4 million residents of the Wasatch Mountains’ air basins experience some of the most severe air pollution in the nation. December, January and early February are when Utah’s air is at its worst.

Some of the questions the U’s Munkhbayar Baasandorj and her colleagues are seeking answers to are: Chemically, what makes up this pollution? What causes this chemical reaction? Where are these pollutants coming from? Where are emissions highest? Do pollutants vary, and how? What role do lakes play?

The final report for the UWFPS is scheduled to be submitted March 1, 2018, to the Utah Department of Air Quality (DAQ).

“Poor air quality harms the health and well-being of Utah residents, stifles economic development and negatively impacts quality of life,” stated a fact sheet published by the Utah DAQ. “Increased understanding of the chemical processes behind the formation of [fine particulates] will help the (DAQ) identify effective emission-control measures that reduce pollution and protect human health at the lowest cost.”

The health of the community stands to benefit from finding a way to reduce and control fine particulate pollution with decreases in respiratory symptoms, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and premature death of those with lung or heart disease — all conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by fine particulate pollution.

“It’s my specialty to study air pollution,” said Baasandorj, who is a professor of atmospheric sciences at the U. “So I was just in the right place at the right time. There were not too many studies before, no one had looked at pollution episodes, like the science behind the pollution episodes. It is really important to understand what is driving these episodes so that we can formulate a control strategy.”

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