SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone who breathes in northern Utah ought to be paying attention to the efforts of a $2 million, first-of-its-kind study analyzing the area's notorious wintertime pollution problem.
Researchers and scientists from the federal and state agencies and multiple universities have been meeting Monday and Tuesday at the University of Utah to go over preliminary data from an aerial and ground survey of inversions that was carried out earlier this year.
A draft report from the Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study should be finished in September with a final version anticipated in March, said Steven S. Brown, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
This study is the first of its kind to specifically isolate the chemical formation, interactions and meteorology at play in northern Utah that go into "building" an inversion along the Wasatch Front and Cache Valley. Researchers used a Twin Otter airplane to take measurements along the entire depth of the pollution blanket in varying regions at different times of the day.
The aircraft carried 2,000 pounds of instrumentation and was equipped with inlets on the sides and top to take measurements.
Multiple flights headed north from Salt Lake City into Cache Valley for a survey of pollution episodes in Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Cache counties. Researchers also surveyed Utah County and part of Tooele County, and took measurements on flights that kissed the eastern portion of the Great Salt Lake because of its complex contribution to pollution formation.
The aircraft did missed approaches, coming within 15 feet of the ground at regional airports, to measure the concentration pollution at lower reaches of the inversions, and flew the pollution column until they were above it. There were also several ground sites taking measurements to compare the chemistry, and the research also looked at canyon winds and the formation of cold air pools, according to the study.
Brown said preliminary information shows that researchers and regulators need to get a handle on what, for example, is contributing to the formation of ammonium nitrate in the atmosphere.
"Ammonium nitrate is the thing that is the biggest air quality issue," he said, noting that it forms with a reaction between ammonia, which is a directly emitted compound, and nitric acid.
Anthropogenic ammonia emissions come from soils, fertilizers or domesticated animal waste, but also through industrial emissions and vehicles, Brown said.
"It's cows plus cars," he said. "Agriculture is not the only source."
Ammonia plays an important role in the formation of other compounds that contribute to northern Utah's PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution, problem.
"To develop a plan to mitigate air quality problems, we need to understand the chemistry," Brown said.
The aerial and ground surveys are revealing unique pollution indicators based on geographically distinct areas.
In Utah County, for example, researchers found elevated concentrations of halogens, which include a variety of elements such as fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine.
Dorothy Fibiger, in her presentation to researchers, said the concentration of halogens detected in the study period over several weeks in February were unlikely to come from a fertilizer plant or a power plant. Rather, researchers suspect the elements come from the emissions of high-tech manufacturing companies, though additional analysis is planned.
"This is a very active area of air quality research," said Fibiger, a scientist from the University of Colorado on loan to NOAA, who traveled to Utah for the first time to take part in the study.
"They have a direct impact on human health and affect rates of (pollution) particle formation. They are very reactive.
"I'd never been here prior to this study," she said, noting that she'd heard about the skiing and mountains.
"We get here and we descend into the soup of the inversion. It was pretty wild."
Just as meteorologists light up at the prospect of a big storm event, Fibiger was excited to be in the midst of the temperature inversions that Utah has come to loathe.
"We were only here for a month, so there was some worry there wouldn't be any," she said.
Fibiger said the research is designed to give Utah regulators and leaders some answers on how to tackle the pollution problem.
"I hope it gives us an idea of what knobs to turn to decrease the impact of inversion events and decrease impacts to the people who live here," she said.
Brock LeBaron, with the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the science will help regulators develop more specific pollution control plans.
"This really has to do with what exactly does the state or the Division of Air Quality need to go after to target controls (of air pollution sources)," LeBaron said. "The chemistry they are looking at really helps us understand that."
Research organizations involved in the study include NOAA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, University of Utah, Weber State and Brigham Young universities, and the universities of Colorado, Toronto and Washington.
The Utah Legislature funded part of the study.