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Winter inversions hitting Utah harder, more frequently

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 22 2013 6:35 p.m. MST

Smoggy air fills the sky over the Salt Lake City skyline early Tuesday morning, Jan. 22, 2013.

Scott Jones, Deseret News

NORTH SALT LAKE — Kerri Green has been indoors all day — all winter, even.

As she paces across the carpeted flooring of her North Salt Lake home, gaping at the murky air beyond her windows, she decides she can't stand it anymore. She takes the dog and walks to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail while the sun is high in the sky. 

"We were only a little bit higher and could see only a little less of the muck, but it was glorious," Green said. "I returned home dreaming of sunny skies and fresh, clean air."

This year's inversions are hitting Utah harder and more frequently than they have in years, said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Current inversion levels are exceeding federal air quality standards by a wide margin — and almost triple the standard in Utah County, Bird said.

The numbers of alert days in Utah have been steadily climbing over the past 10 years. In 2002, Salt Lake City had six air quality alert days. So far this winter, there have been 19 alert days in the Salt Lake Valley.

"This is certainly the highest concentration of inversions that we've seen in a number of years," he said.

And it's not about to desist any time soon, experts say.

"Our forecasts don't indicate that the upcoming front is guaranteed to be strong enough to match this inversion this week," said Bo Call, of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Even if temporary relief comes this weekend, it's likely to set up again, Bird said.

"The pattern is in place, so concentrations will build up quickly," he said.

Why? This year is a lot colder than it has been in the past couple of years, Call said. Also, in past years, storms would roll in and clear things out every four or five days, but this year, the inversions are sitting for six to 10 days.

The inversion is better in some areas, Call said. Park City was 45 degrees and sunny Tuesday, while Salt Lake City was just 10 degrees and cold, miserable and polluted below the inversion.

Utah and Cache counties are being hit even harder.

"I feel like I'm locking my children in a windowless room full of chain smokers," said Cherise Udell, founder of Utah Moms for Clean Air, a statewide organization dedicated to promoting clean air in Utah. "I feel claustrophobic, I feel frustrated and I even feel angry at our political leaders for not taking action on what many people in Utah think is one of the most important issues for Utah's future."

Udell collaborates with mothers in Utah to promote clean air in Utah through legislation, freeway development planning and prevention of unsafe power plant locations.

In her own home, Udell finds fun places to take her children that offer exercise indoors during the winter. Her favorites include indoor ice skating, bounce houses and Monkey Mountain — a 4,000-square-foot indoor playground in Park City.

Udell buys air filters for her house and car, and keeps indoor plants to help clean the air.

Pollution levels this year have shot through the roof, Call said.

"Three years ago, we had an episode in January, going six days with levels reaching 70 micrograms of pollution per cubic meter, but right now in Utah county, we're up to 120 micrograms," he said. The national standard is 35 micrograms.

Once the lid is on the northern Wasatch Front, 360 tons per day of emissions are produced a day, Bird said.

"It's a fairly standard number, in comparison to other areas of similar populations, but for us, everything stays under the lid," he said.

Bird recommends taking precautions to avoid heavy exertion outside and drive less frequently, to lessen emissions that add to the pollution. For more tips, visit airmonitoring.utah.gov or check out the Utah Department of Transportation's TravelWise program. 

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com

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