When it comes to air quality, we all would like to be singing the familiar line: “Blue skies, smiling at me. Nothing but blue skies. Do I see.”
While the break from the inversion associated with winter gives us all a breath of fresh air, it is important to remember that the summer months are not alone in their air quality challenges. Understanding the difference between the air quality issues associated with this season is key to making sure we all do our part to clear the air.
Utah, like the rest of the world, not only benefits from having a strong ozone layer in the atmosphere, but we need it to survive. On the other hand, ozone near the surface causes serious health risks for our children, the elderly and those with health concerns.
When summer air is hot and still, vehicle emission build in Utah’s valley, resulting in poor air quality. Ground level ozone, the main ingredient of smog, can reach levels that are dangerous to people’s health. This type of ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. Emissions from area sources like buildings and homes, transportation emissions from motor vehicle exhaust or gasoline vapors, and things like chemical solvents, are some of the major sources of NOx and VOC.
In contrast, inversions occur during the winter months when normal atmospheric conditions (cool air above, warm air below) become inverted. Inversions trap a dense layer of cold air under a layer of warm air. The warm layer acts much like a lid, trapping pollutants in the cold air near the valley floor.
The Wasatch Front valleys and their surrounding mountains act like a bowl, keeping cold air in.The snow-covered valley floors reflect rather than absorb the heat from the sun, preventing the normal vertical mixing of warm and cold air. Fog exacerbates the problem, facilitating chemical reactions that create even more particles and higher pollutant concentrations. The longer the inversion lasts, the higher the levels of pollution trapped under it. The warm inversion air layer is usually displaced by a strong storm system which restores air quality to healthy levels.
While the science behind the two air quality issues is different, a major factor in both are transportation emissions. These are responsible for an estimated fifty-percent of ground level ozone and nearly half of the emissions that fuel an inversion. So by simply reducing vehicle trips, we can protect our health, our environment and our quality of life.
Coincidentally that is what the Clear the Air Challenge is all about. So how can you help?
- Invite others to join with you and thousands of others across Utah in participating in Clear the Air Challenge.
- Be consciously aware of the simple ways you can reduce emissions, such as turning your vehicle off while idle, taking as few trips as possible, carpooling and using public transit. To learn more about simple ways the average person can reduce emissions please read the Education material in the startup-toolkit of the Clear the Air Challenge: Here
- Educate yourself and others about our air quality issues. Too often myth precedes facts. And personal responsibility is replaced with finger pointing. As Utah continues to grow, we must all commit to doing our part to improving our air quality.