Winter Air Quality in Salt Lake City, Utah

Utah Air Quality

I may be a Utah transplant, but I love this state’s outdoor adventure scene like a native. When I first moved to Draper, Utah to take an advising gig at the University of Utah three years ago, I was immediately drawn to the endless possibilities for outdoor activities. I’m originally from Montana, “Big Sky” country, which means I’m no stranger to beautiful wilderness, breathtaking landscapes, and year-round adventure in the open, clean air.

I’ll be honest, Utah had big shoes to fill, but I’m happy to report that the state stepped up and into those shoes in ways that surprised and thrilled me. I quickly learned that by driving just a few short hours, I could go from tall, majestic Rocky Mountains to gorgeous red rock formations and desert landscapes. Utah really does have it all. I could do every land activity I wanted: running, hiking, biking, skiing, snowshoeing, climbing, canyoneering, and camping. I did them all, and began to understand why Utah’s slogan is “Life Elevated.”

Winter Inversion

Unfortunately, during my first winter in the state, I encountered a phenomenon that took my “elevated life” down a few notches. It’s one we simply don’t have in Montana, and one Utah natives refer to as “the inversion.”  My first interaction with this weather phenomenon was in downtown Salt Lake City. I’d just watched a performance at Abravanel Hall, when I walked out into the winter air and couldn’t see more than two blocks in front of me. I was surrounded by dense, hazy, polluted air.

If you’ve lived in Utah during the winter season, you most likely have your own stories about and pictures of the air in this state.  You probably also know all the inversion’s other names – fog, haze, smog, and air pollution.  But do you know why the inversion actually happens?

Here’s the deal, in normal atmospheric conditions, cold air sits above warm air. Warm air rises, allowing air pollutants to rise with it. However, when these layers are reversed or inverted, if you will, warm air traps cold air near the ground, causing a temperature inversion. When this happens, different types of pollutants like smoke and carbon emissions aren’t able to rise, which can cause our air quality to reach unhealthy levels.

In addition to the inversions, winter also brings with it increased fossil fuel carbon emissions. As temperatures get colder and snow begins to stick around, we tend to ditch our bikes, avoid the icy sidewalks, and begin relying on our cars more for transportation. Once inside, we crank up the heat, using more electricity, wood, natural gas, and heating oil, therefore increasing our carbon emissions. And the problem is serious. According to the 2015 State of the Air report, Salt Lake City received an “F” grade and was listed as the 7th worst city in the nation for short-term particle pollution. That’s a shocking statistic for a city this beautiful, with so much open space! The report also found that ground level ozone increased in Salt Lake City this year, which can lead to lung irritation, coughing, wheezing, and asthma attacks.

Air Pollution and My Health

I’ve armed myself with all this information and made sure I know how the air in the Salt Lake Valley can and does impact my health. This knowledge has helped me successfully survive three winters here! But truth be told, my mood tends to take on the gloominess that the grey cover brings with it. I find myself confronted with questions like, “Can or should I exercise outdoors today?” “Do I have the time to drive high enough in the mountains to escape the dirty city air?” “How do I balance my need to get outside and away from the pollution with my desire to not increase my carbon footprint by driving either into the mountains or to the gym (which I hate, by the way)?” “How do I survive and thrive in a state where I feel confined to my office, home, and gym for six months out of the year?”

Air Quality App

There are websites and apps out there that have helped me find answers to some of my questions, but I find myself wanting to be even more proactive about my health. During a recent late night Apple Store app search, I stumbled onto one called My Air. It’s an app that assesses the airborne contaminants (ozone and PM2.5) of your location and factors in important information like weight, height, age, gender, fitness level, exertion level, and respiratory symptoms (like my exercise-induced asthma). MyAir then performs an analysis and tells you how many minutes you can safely exercise outdoors during the next hour. If you want to postpone a workout, it will give an updated forecast based on the current air quality.

I might be addicted to app, but who cares. I can own it. Unlike websites that provide a general air quality report and the standard air quality index (AQI), the MyAir results are tailored to me. Who doesn’t like an app that gives you personalized information?! Even if you aren’t using the air quality app to figure out when you can safely do some snowshoeing this winter, it’s sure to come in handy when you’re making decisions about whether to take public transportation or if your kids should play indoors or outdoors.

And while I love making informed decisions about how to safely navigate our air quality each day, I know that the bigger issue at hand is the movement to reduce our carbon footprint. As a city, Salt Lake has made some great efforts to improve air quality, including a 2.5 billion dollar investment in public transportation. As individuals, there are many ways we, too, can take action to achieve clean air. Start with the little things: conserve energy by turning off lights, electronics, and appliances when not in use and invest in energy efficient light bulbs. To make a bigger impact, reduce car pollution by carpooling or using public transit. And next time you want to blast the heat or start a fire when you get home, cuddle up in a sweatshirt or blanket instead. You can use a carbon footprint calculator to find out how you’re doing and what you could do better. No matter how small the action, we can change our behaviors, reduce emissions, and improve our air quality not just in the winter but all year round.