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New study aims to capture information on Utah's inversion

SALT LAKE CITY — The largest field study in a decade of Utah's wintertime inversions is being launched after the National Science Foundation signed off on the project with $1.3 million in funding.

Researchers from the University of Utah and other institutions are beginning the three-year multi-agency probe that will also tap university students for exhaustive field work. Plans are to involve the public as well through social networking tools such as Facebook.

The announcement comes on the heels of a challenge issued last week by Gov. Gary Herbert and other local leaders who urged Utahns to embrace a statewide "Clean Air Challenge," and in advance of a teleconference of air quality board members who have been wrangling with the EPA over Utah's nonattainment pollution zones.

Multiple days in December and last month hit the "Red Day" zone, meaning pollutants were at unhealthy levels because they were trapped along the Wasatch Front's valley floors and in the cold air of Cache County.

At times this winter, the greater Salt Lake City area has harbored the most polluted air in the United States, according to the EPA. The study will attempt to better understand winter inversion conditions that precipitate poor air quality.

"We suffered from poor air quality for the latter part of December and most of January," said John Horel, a U. atmospheric sciences professor and one of the three co-principal investigators for the project. "This study is going to identify the weather that contributes to the development, maintenance and breakup of these inversions."

Such inversions are made worse because "fog and low clouds often form within the cold-air pool, which affects the air pollution chemistry, besides leading to reduced visibility on roads and flight delays at the Salt Lake City International Airport," said the U.'s David Whiteman, lead scientist and research professor of atmospheric sciences. Whiteman is also a co-principal investigator on the project.

The funding will support collecting observations, analyzing the data and using "models" of the atmosphere to simulate the temperature and wind patterns during cold-air-pool events, or inversions, in the Salt Lake area.

Horel anticipates more than 50 scientists and students will participate directly in the study, including some from other University of Utah departments such as biology, geology and mechanical engineering, and from Utah State University, Brigham Young University, other universities and state and federal agencies. The project also will involve staff from federal, state and local agencies, commercial firms, groups interested in air quality in the Salt Lake area and the public.

From now until December, the researchers "will be examining past cold-air-pool episodes, including this winter's," and deciding where to place monitoring equipment in the Salt Lake Valley, Horel says.

"Students also will be developing some instrumentation to deploy on vehicles this spring and summer. Students in the plains states chase storms. We'll be chasing cold pools."

An estimated 30 undergraduate and graduate atmospheric sciences students at the University of Utah will be heavily involved in the planning and conduct of the research program. In addition, a special course will be offered this spring in which students will help with some of the legwork to identify monitoring sites.

e-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com