People along the Wasatch Front may be excused these days for approaching the daily weather forecast the way an elementary student might approach a difficult homework assignment. Few meteorological phenomena can compare with a temperature inversion for its negative effects on the psyche and physical health.
Geography bears much of the blame for this. Northern Utah's valleys act as bowls where pollutants are easily held in place by high-pressure systems that trap warm air above and cold air below.
But the effects of lingering inversions are not trivial. Fine particulates are trapped in the air. They can bypass the body's natural defenses and go deep into the lungs. People with asthma and other chronic health problems may suffer difficulties as a result. Even otherwise healthy people may feel its effects. Schools may decide to cancel outdoor recesses, and health alerts may be issued urging people to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.
Inversions are not new to the state. Old-timers tell of days when people routinely burned coal or wood to stay warm and inversions led to soot stains over much of the city. That does not mean, however, that Utahns can't do things to lessen the effects of this frequent winter condition.
Chief among these is to drive less. Because of their number, automobiles are chief contributors to bad air. When inversions strike, Utahns ought to be of a mind-set to alter their natural behavior, cutting down on unnecessary trips, looking for people with whom to share rides or seeking alternatives. And government ought not to be afraid to give them incentives to do so.
Five years ago, a state lawmaker proposed a bill that would have allowed people to ride UTA busses or TRAX trains at a discounted fare on yellow-burn days, and for free on red-burn days. Yellow and red represent different levels of pollution and restrictions. Lawmakers debated how to provide money to cover the Utah Transit Authority's losses on those days.
Unfortunately, the bill was referred to a committee for further study, which is a polite way of saying it was rejected. That was understandable in context. The bill was proposed during the beginning of the recession, when money was extra tight. We would like to see the bill revived in the 2013 legislative session, however, and to see free or reduced-fare rides on FrontRunner added, as well. This policy would have the added effect of introducing new riders to mass transit, perhaps persuading some of them to keep riding, even after the air clears.
In addition to this, the Utah Department of Transportation should consider adding air quality to its calculations when determining the fluctuating price of driving in the HOV/toll lane on I-15. Making driving that much more expensive during peak traffic times in an inversion would coax even more people away from their cars.
People tend to be comfortable in routines and habits. But inversions, and their health effects, are serious weather conditions that demand a change in routines that exacerbate the problem. Utah's leaders should do all they can to encourage behavior that reduces the harmful conditions.
That is far more preferable than to wait until air quality gets so bad that involuntary restrictions are necessary.