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First of its kind study takes to the skies to study Utah's notorious inversions

SALT LAKE CITY — The buzz of a low-flying plane along the Wasatch Front and in Cache Valley represents an aerial autopsy of sorts to find out what makes Utah's inversions tick.

A Twin Otter airplane carrying research scientists and 2,000 pounds of instrumentation has conducted a series of flights this month charting the anatomy of Utah's notorious wintertime inversions.

"There is a very complex interaction between the meteorology and the atmospheric chemistry that we feel deserves a very detailed look," said Steven S. Brown with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"This is a detailed study to try to understand how best to apply the data to help people who are in charge of negating these problems to address them well," he said.

The Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study is the first of its kind in the country to use aircraft and state-of-the-art instruments to study the conditions at play that lead to the formation of PM2.5.

A synopsis of the study proposal notes the prevalence of winter pollution episodes in mountain valleys across the western United States, but emphasizes that Salt Lake City is by far the largest urban area impacted and suffers the highest concentrations.

The health impacts are severe as well, the document notes, with emergency room visits for asthma that increase by 42 percent during the latter stages of an inversion event.

Fueled in part with funding from the Utah Legislature, the $2 million study brought together researchers from the University of Utah, Brigham Young University, Utah State University, the University of Toronto and multiple other entities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers gathered pollution data from multiple ground sites from Cache County to Utah County and used the airplane to probe the different layers of the inversion with missed approaches at regional airports dipping down to 15 feet above ground.

"One of the key things we are able to do with the airplane is to really say something about the composition of the air at various stages above ground," Brown said.

The research airplane, armed with inlets on the sides and top of the aircraft, flew two different flight patterns over multiple hours twice a day. The northern flight surveyed pollution conditions in Weber, Davis, Box Elder and Cache counties, surveying emission hot spots.

The southern flight gathered data in Salt Lake County, over the Great Salt Lake and on into Utah County.

Researchers are hoping to learn more about the role the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake play in the formation of fine particulate pollution, as well as the mountain topography.

Despite the attention northern Utah receives for its problematic pollution episodes — at times racking up the most severe concentrations in the nation — little localized research has been done probing the chemical composition of particulate pollution.

The Utah Department of Environmental Quality wants to take the research, and its conclusions, to form a blueprint for identifying local solutions to the problem.

A report on the study will be given to the agency within six months to a year.

Utah remains out of compliance for meeting the federal standard on levels of PM2.5 and has to come up with a pollution-busting plan to submit to the EPA for approval.

On average, the state's largest metropolitan areas exceed the 24-hour standard 18 days a year.