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Seen as Nature Lovers' Paradise, Utah Struggles With Air Quality

Author: New York Times

Frosch, Dan. “Seen as Nature Lovers' Paradise, Utah Struggles With Air Quality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Feb. 2013,

Seen as Nature Lovers’ Paradise, Utah Struggles With Air Quality

Along the Wasatch Front, the corridor where most Utahans live, weather and geography often help trap bad air.

Credit...Scott G. Winterton/Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has long been known as an outdoor lover’s utopia. The skiing and mountain biking are among the best anywhere. And the snow-clotted mountains that tower around Salt Lake give this city a mythic quality during winter.

But lately, the Wasatch Front, the corridor of cities and towns where most Utahans live, has acquired a reputation for a less enviable attribute: bad air.

For the last few years, the area has been grappling with one of the nation’s most vexing pollution problems, where atmospheric inversions during the winter months lead to a thick fog of dirty air cloaking the region.

“Obviously, this is not acceptable,” said Bryce Bird, the director of Utah’s Division of Air Quality. “The public is fed up with it. The concern for them is that it is not being addressed fast enough.”

According to the division, Salt Lake County has experienced 22 days this winter in which pollution levels exceeded federal air quality standards, compared with just one last year.

The air pollution has gotten so bad at times that it has prompted warnings from local doctors, spawned protests at the State Capitol and led to a variety of legislative proposals in the hopes of confronting the problem before it gets worse.

It is not that the region necessarily emits more pollution than other large metropolitan areas, or that the problem is especially new, Mr. Bird said. What makes the situation here different is the confluence of topographic and meteorological factors.

When heavy winter storms sweep through the area, they leave snow on the Salt Lake Valley floor. But intermittent warm high-pressure systems trap the cold air, creating the effect of a lid on a soup bowl and keeping dirty air from car emissions and other pollutants from escaping.

Federal safe air standards are set at 35 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air — about the weight of a single crystal of table salt — averaged over a 24-hour period. During inversions last month, Salt Lake County reached 69 micrograms per cubic meter, while nearby Utah County got to 125 micrograms, Mr. Bird said,


An earlier version of this article misstated details of the atmospheric inversions during the winter months that lead to a thick fog of dirty air cloaking the Salt Lake City region. It is intermittent warm high-pressure systems, not warm fronts, that trap the cold air and keep pollutants from escaping.

DMU Timestamp: February 27, 2021 01:26

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