SALT LAKE CITY — The Wasatch Front's stifling wintertime inversions dominate public conversations about the need to clean up the air, but summer ozone spikes can be just as insidious for people with respiratory problems.
The formation of the ground-level smog — and what contributes to those surges of pollutants — is also a matter of complicated chemistry driven by factors that scientists and other researchers are still trying to understand.
To that end, a multifaceted research effort is underway involving the University of Utah, Weber State University, Utah State University and the Utah Division of Air Quality to determine the atmospheric role the Great Salt Lake and its exposed lake beds play in the formation of summer smog.
"We are trying to take measurements of ozone at a level that has never been measured before so we can get a handle on summer pollution problems along the Wasatch Front," said John Sohl, with Weber State University's Department of Physics. "And how the lake impacts that ozone is what we are trying to find out."
Funded with money from the Utah Legislature, the 2015 summer ozone study plays off research three years ago that found elevated levels of ozone near the Great Salt Lake.
"The lake helps modulate the wind patterns in the surrounding areas, driving pollutants from urban areas towards the lake at night. These emissions from cars, homes and industry are the building blocks for ozone. Then, the energy from the sun helps create ozone during the day from those emissions. In the afternoon, lake breezes may carry ozone back towards the Wasatch Front,” said John Horel, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Utah.
The Utah Division of Air Quality has about 18 fixed pollution sensors mounted in locations that provide real-time automated readings. In addition, there is an array of mobile collection points, like the one attached to a TRAX car, researchers' vehicles and the so-called "Nerd Mobile," so named for its bounty of sophisticated equipment.
Horel said teams hit the road and drive along "collection" points for ozone pollution, taking readings as they go. A real-time map shows the ozone readings west of the Ogden Bay Wildlife Management Area, the Antelope Island Causeway and I-80 as it traces the southern tip of the Great Salt Lake.
More "inland" readings are delivered by stationary sources.
"We are already seeing a lot of fascinating variations in the levels of pollutants, ones that we are certainly not understanding yet," he said. "Even (Tuesday), the area that had the highest levels of ozone was up on the east bench near the university."
Researchers will also use unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, as well as free-flying balloons to "launch" sensors for data collection.
Scientists suspect that just like the Wasatch Front mountains play a part in how wintertime pollution behaves in Utah's most crowded areas, the Great Salt Lake and its exposed beds have a similar nexus.
"The exposed dry beds surrounding the lake are highly reflective and that provides more energy for photochemical reactions creating ozone to take place,” said Erik Crosman, an assistant research professor at the U.
Researchers stepped up their mobile collection efforts this week during the building heat of a June sun, and will hit the Great Salt Lake shorelines again in July and August.
The intent of the study is to measure the extent of aerial and vertical concentrations of ozone over the Great Salt Lake and surrounding areas against the backdrop of other conditions that may be unfolding at the time, such as wind speed, wildfires, traffic patterns and more.
Researchers say that as Utah and the rest of the country prepare for a tightened federal ozone standard coming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a better understanding of how the pollutant is formed will be critical for implementing a reduction strategy.