Winter inversions foul Salt Lake Valley

Denver-based photographer Jude Tibway ( took this photo from near Snowbird in February 2010

Denver-based photographer Jude Tibway ( took this photo of the Salt Lake Valley from near Snowbird in February 2010

Utah ski areas shine even as smog

sickens, smothers  Salt Lake Valley

Doctors in Utah estimate that poor quality because of winter temperature inversions contributes to 1,000 to 2,000 premature deaths each year.

Even as the air in Salt Lake City and other parts of Utah’s urban corridor has turned sickly this winter, the ski areas along the Wasatch Range have shined and sparkled.

Trying to make lemonade out of the source blanket of smog smothering the cities below, Snowbird has announced discounted lift ticket prices on bad-air days.

“Although you can’t see it from the valley, the skies are blue and the sun is shining at Snowbird during most inversions,” said Dave Fields, Snowbird vice president of resort operations, in announcing the $20 discount of the normal $84 all-day ticket.

Park City, located on the east side of the slender Wasatch Range, just a 30-minute drive from downtown Salt Lake City, has also been spared most of the pollution that typically gets trapped by temperature inversions for weeks at a time between December and March.

This winter has been especially bad. In an editorial in late January, the Salt Lake Tribune described it as a “public health crisis” and called on Utah Gov. Gary Hebert to push policies that reduce the smog that this winter has been described as the worst in the nation.

The newspaper noted the irony that on the day that Hebert proudly announced his Outdoor Recreation Vision, a photo of the Wasatch Range had to be used as the backdrop Explained the newspaper: “He had to use a picture because the real mountains were not visible that day, or the next day, or the day before, obscured as they were by another day of the eye-smarting, lung-scarring smog that has enveloped the valley for such a large part of this winter. Which threatens to hang over our lives, and our children’s health, for years to come without some real leadership provided by that same governor.”

A letter signed by 100 Utah doctors released in January asks state leaders to waive fees for use of public transportation during inversions, lower freeway speed limits to 55 mph, and require industrial emitters to cut production by half.

The pollution is partly an artifact of geography. High-pressure systems create temperature inversions, trapping the pollution from cars and trucks, which produce 52 percent of the pollution, as well as from a smelter and other large polluters.

During mid-winter, the Salt Lake Valley often congeals in a thick soup of tiny pollutants of size 2.5 microns or smaller, called PM 2.5 by experts. The soot, measuring one-30th the size of a human hair, is a combination of particles from combustion, solvent fumes, and other chemical pollutants.

When Salt Lake City’s PM 2.5 count reached 90 recently, it was just 20 to 25 in Summit County, location of Park City, according to The Park Record.

This year, an inversion began in late December and has continued with little interruption into late January. It had been predicted a month before, explains the Tribune, based on weather in the Pacific Ocean.

In Utah County, where Provo is located, the PM 2.5 has hit 147 micrograms of pollution per cubic meter of air, more than four times the EPA’s health-based standard of 35.

Medical personnel estimate that Utah suffers 1,000 to 2,000 premature deaths per year as a result of the bad air, according to the Tribune. “It’s curious to see a clustering of patients with a rare disorder around a bad air quality day,” said Chris Crowley, a cardiovascular anesthesiologist who testified at a hearing. Said pediatrician Ellie Brownstein: “I see more kids in my office wheezing and coughing. It’s like we’re all smokers.”

Said the Tribune: “Asthma. Heart disease. Emphysema. Miscarriages. Premature death.

A letter in the Tribune from an individual identified as Tom Warton reported he had been diagnosed with asthma after finding it hard to breathe and discovering the oxygen levels in his blood were far below normal – or healthy. “Having climbed many of the Wasatch peaks and hiked all over the world, I was disgusted with myself for putting on the weight and falling out of shape,” he wrote. “It never occurred to me that the pollution I could see and smell in the valley might be a contributing factor.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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