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Neil Lareau
A view from the Avenues neighborhood towards the University of Utah campus showing a shallow pollution-filled inversion on Dec. 2, 2010.

SALT LAKE CITY — With his fingers hurting and body shaking from the cold, a backpack motor propels Chris Santacroce skyward as he coasts above the shoreline of the Great Salt Lake.

At about 2,000 feet, he rises above the inversion.  

"When I hit (the threshold) I'm quite happy," Santacroce said. "There's a sense of relief because the airs clean the views great and you're not as cold as you were."

Santacroce hasn't been doing these winter flights for the last two months just to escape the nine inversions that have settled in the valley since December. University of Utah students recruited him to gather data that might reveal the weather patterns leading to inversions. A miniature weather station attached to his Red Bull helmet collects the data. 

"Weather prediction models right now do a very poor job at predicting … inversions in basins not just in Salt Lake, but all across the western U.S.," said Erik Crosman, one of the leading students of the research project. "We hope to improve the forecast and understanding of the processes that lead to the formation, maintenance and breakup of cold air polls."

Crosman and a team of researchers have dubbed the project the Persistent Cold Air Pool Study. They're studying the life cycle of inversions.

These cold air pools settle below warmer air, trapping pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere. By studying inversions, Crosman said he's hoping meteorologists will gain the needed understanding to alert the public before they start contributing pollutants to the air. It's would be a preemptive strike that Bryce Bird, of the Utah Division of Air Quality, would welcome.

"When we're looking at the deterioration that comes throughout the inversion period," Bird said, "it's important to be able to forecast that and know when people should protect themselves."

The ability to forecast inversions might also impact a new plan for regulating air polluters scheduled to be completed in December of 2012. In the meantime, the Division of Air Quality is keeping tabs on the study.  

"The timing is really good for us to be able to understand the problem well, to develop solutions that will lead to better air quality in the future," Bird said.

The study is collecting information gathered by dozens of miniature weather stations tethered by a cord 20 feet below weather balloons that fly to the top of the atmosphere. The stations measure temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and direction.

Grant Weyman, a KSL meteorologist, has volunteered photos and media resources to help the project move forward.

"Some of the aspects of weather that are important here would be things like snow but another big talker is the inversion," Weyman said. "Air quality issues are becoming more and more newsworthy as the city gets bigger."

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When a big storm with wind and cold approaches, an impending inversion is a no-brainer, Weyman said. It's when a weaker storm comes in that an inversion is difficult to predict.

"What these guys' findings may tell us is what are the thresholds for when an inversion is going to get kicked," Weymon said. "It's more important to warn the public about things like cutting down on driving and chimneys before this kind of set up occurs instead of when we're in the middle of it."

E-mail: sgarn@desnews.com