UTAH (ABC4) – Utahns are all too familiar with the haze that can cover Salt Lake City, layering the area in a thick cloud of pollution. A process called “inversion” is to blame, but what is it?

The National Weather Service defines temperature inversion as “a layer in the atmosphere in which air temperature increases with height.”

An inversion is present in the lower part of a “cap”, which is a layer of relatively warm air above the inversion. Air parcels rising into this layer become cooler than the surrounding environment, which inhibits their ability to ascend.

To put it more simply, when there is no inversion, air near the ground is warmer and air higher up is cooler. An inversion means that the warmer air is on top, while the air near the ground is cooler.

Why does this happen? During the winter months, the snowy ground, in fact, cools the air, making it colder than the warmer air above (under normal conditions, air is warmer near the ground and colder at higher altitudes).

This is why inversions often occur after a snowstorm, most commonly on clear, low-wind, sunny days, where the calm, clear skies warm up the upper atmosphere.

Why is Salt Lake City to susceptible to inversion weather?

The answer is simple: Salt Lake City is situated in a valley (Salt Lake Valley) and is surrounded by mountains, with the Wasatch Mountains to the east and north, and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. This means that when the inversion happens, the air gets trapped within the surrounding atmosphere.

The problem with this process is that all the pollution from the city gets trapped as a result.

To add insult to injury, the Great Salt Lake is continuously drying up due to chronic drought, causing dust to travel through the air.

Dust is bad news when inversion is prevalent because it acts as a carrier for other pollution particles, like heavy metals and toxic chemicals.

What’s the cost? According to a team of 23 Utah-based researchers, it’s estimated that air pollution in Utah causes between 2,500 and 8,000 premature deaths every year.

The pollution causes many conditions like heart and lung diseases, including congestive heart failure, heart attack, pneumonia, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and asthma.

The study indicates that these conditions make up the majority of the health effects from the pollution, while the rest are linked with stroke, cancer, reproductive harm, mental illness, behavioral dysfunction, immune disease, autism, and other conditions.

Research also shows that pollution costs Utahn’s about $2 billion annually. This whopping figure comes as a result of healthcare expenses, damage to crops, and lost earning potential, combined with indirect costs such as loss of tourism, decreased growth, and regulatory burdens.

In an effort to enact change, the Utah Legislature and the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, with the assistance of a 37-person Technical Advisory Committee, have prepared this Utah Roadmap to assist with legislative policymaking to improve air quality and address causes and impacts of a changing climate.

The Utah Roadmap “identifies areas of opportunity to further reduce air emissions and ensure a healthy, productive, and prosperous future for all Utahns.”

The list of actions to help reduce Utah’s pollution includes, “increasing efficiency of vehicles and buildings, investing in awareness, removing subsidies for nonrenewable energy, requiring payment for pollution, and expanding alternative transportation.”

It is estimated that each of these policies would result in huge decreases in air pollution. Thom Carter, Executive Director of Utah Clean Air Partnership, states, “When looking at how poor air quality impacts our region, it is important to know that we are making progress and that each person, family, organization, and community can find ways to reduce emissions and improve our quality of life.”

To read more about the human health and economic costs of air pollution in Utah, click here.