SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's killer skiing and snowboarding draw winter visitation to popular canyons east of Salt Lake City, but inversions also "push" people to higher ground to escape the bad air.
This finding based on new research from Utah State University's Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism is the result of tracking Salt Lake area inversions and weather up Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, as well as traffic patterns.
"Air quality data were collected for the city, and weather data for the canyons themselves. The researchers found that desirable weather within the canyons (i.e., cooler temperatures, more snowfall and deeper snow depths) acts as a 'pull' factor, increasing the volume of traffic headed up the canyons," according to a press release.
"They also found that poor air quality within the city acts as a 'push' factor on travel behavior, this too positively influenced the amount of traffic up the canyons."
The research, published Oct. 8 in Sustainability, looked at visitation in the canyons over the 2016-17 winter, analyzing traffic data obtained from various state and federal agencies.
Researchers Hongchao Zhang and Jordan W. Smith said while there is plenty of anecdotal information suggesting inversions "push" people to higher elevations, little empirical data existed to document if, and to what extent, urban air quality influences visitation to high elevation recreation destinations.
"We found the desirable pull factors of cooler winter days and deeper snow depth were positively related with the volume of traffic entering both Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, " the research concluded.
"However, it is not just the pristine mountain environment that draws people up to higher elevations. It is also due, in part, to a desire to escape (or be pushed away) from the poor air quality in the valley below. Our investigation also revealed that poor air quality in Salt Lake City had a significant influence on canyon use."
The researchers note that deeper snowpacks were associated with increased canyon visitation, an important factor in the discussion of a changing climate and how that may ultimately affect the future of Utah's winter recreation economy.
"Rising winter temperatures, along with more variable and infrequent snowfall events, may have a devastating impact on the winter outdoor recreation opportunities within Utah," the paper noted. "Previous research from a variety of other geographic locations has shown that as temperatures rise, and snowfall events become less frequent, visitation to ski resorts declines."
The authors say that as a result of those changing conditions, ski resort operators should consider broadening recreational opportunities through summer and fall seasons to stay economically viable.
"In the coming years, as winter temperatures continue to rise, and average daily snow depths continue to decline, the quality of winter outdoor recreation opportunities available to residents and tourists will concomitantly decline," the paper noted.
While the four ski resorts engage in active snow-making operations, poor performing winters obviously drive decreased visitation, researchers said.