Air pollution that dogs Utah’s Wasatch Front in the winter — called PM2.5 — was being measured Wednesday in double digits in multiple northern Utah counties, with Weber and Box Elder in particular nearing the federal threshold.
The state’s pollution woes are nothing new for residents, but there is a lot of complex chemistry at play that creates these unhealthy conditions and is also unique to Utah.
Here are five takeaways that help to frame the conversation about the state of Utah’s air pollution.
1. Wildfire smoke from raging fires in California and Oregon is drifting east into Utah, aggravating not only ozone pollution but creating extremely high levels of fine particulate pollution into the state.
With high pressure in firmly in place, it looks like the smoke will hang around for at least a few days, unfortunately. Here's the model forecast of smoke concentrations through the entire atmosphere through Wednesday afternoon. #utwx pic.twitter.com/o3yUbnGcJN— NWS Salt Lake City (@NWSSaltLakeCity) September 7, 2021
2. The Great Salt Lake reached its lowest level in history in July and continues to drop, according to the NASA Earth Observatory. The low water levels are due to drought and human diversion of the lake’s tributaries. Such low levels greatly expand the extent of exposed lake bed, where wind can whip up its dust and scatter it in the air we breathe.
3. Ground level ozone formed by the interplay of two precursor pollutants and sunshine is a concerning health problem for Utah and other states in the West. It is a nasty form of pollution that plagues high elevation areas like Utah and Colorado. The Great Salt Lake contributes to the formation of ozone because of the sunlight reflected off the water. That is compounded by the lake breezes that carry it into Salt Lake City. Downdrafts from the canyons in the Salt Lake Valley during the evening lead to higher concentrations of ozone on the benches. The warming climate is aggravating levels of ozone as well because the hot temperatures accelerate the pace of chemical reactions. Regulators also believe much of the ozone in the state is “drift” from places like China — but clean air advocates assert more can be done locally to tamp ozone.
4. Tailpipes in the nation’s fastest-growing state — Utah — are another huge culprit when it comes to pollution. Utah air quality regulators say nearly 50% of the pollution the Wasatch Front experiences in both the winter and summer comes from vehicles. The good news is that many employers, including the state of Utah, have implemented telework programs, and the Utah Division of Air Quality has an aggressive public information campaign to encourage people to carpool or take public transportation. In addition, Wasatch Front refineries are producing Tier 3 fuel, which is cleaner burning. It is the equivalent of taking four or five cars off the road if a motorist is driving a newer car and using that fuel.
5. Utah’s lawmakers and regulators have been trying to carve out effective solutions to combat pollution as much as possible. Over the past several years, the state air quality board has adopted a bevy of new regulations aimed at strengthening controls, including targeting the type of hair spray or paint sold in stores. The state has partnered with Rocky Mountain Power to expand the electric vehicle charging network to quell range anxiety and also modified state law to allow the utility to partner with cities that want to hit net-zero emissions. Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, said expanding the adoption of electric vehicles would improve Utah’s air quality, as well as the electrification of businesses and homes to eliminate natural gas.