SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – With the Great Salt Lake being coined an “environmental nuclear bomb” by the New York Times, nasty particles and high levels of pollutants floating around in the air will greatly affect the air quality of those living in the Beehive State.

For those who have ever asked themselves ‘How bad is the air pollution here in Utah’ — there’s great news.

A new Air Tracker is available to the public and will allow residents to track where their air pollution is coming from — identifying hotspots in the process.

What does the Air Tracker do?

The web-based tool allows users to plot the “likely path” of air pollution in real-time. Air Tracker helps users learn more about the air they’re breathing, including pollution concentrations and its potential sources.

“Users can investigate emission sources with a research-grade atmospheric model at their fingertips,” said University of Utah Professor John Lin.

Lin works in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and adapted his research group’s atmospheric model (the Stochastic Time-Inverted Lagrangian Transport model, or STILT) to run as part of Air Tracker.

“Air quality monitors can show us how polluted our air is, but they aren’t equipped to tell us what is causing the pollution,” says Tammy Thompson, Senior Air Quality Scientist and creator of the tool. “With Air Tracker, we’re able to see likely sources of pollution hotspots, which is especially helpful in cities where a variety of emitters contribute to overall air quality.”

Air pollution and weather data were developed in partnership with the University of Utah and the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University.

How does Air Tracker work?

Air Tracker is available in three cities; Salt Lake City, Houston, and Pittsburgh.

Users can click anywhere on maps of Houston, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh to create a “source area,” which shows the most likely origin of the air they’re breathing at any given time.

They can also click on locations of individual air quality sensors to show real-time and historical fine particle pollution readings, wind speed, and direction.

Air Tracker relies on STILT and incorporates several different weather forecasting models to show how particles move through the atmosphere. The tool is then able to map the probability of pollution’s path.

The tool can identify pollution sources at the city block level.

Air Tracker at U of U campus showing pollution levels
Courtesy: Air Tracker

The screenshot above is from Air Tracker and shows the upwind sources of air at the U campus on June 6, 2022, including air quality measurements from the PurpleAir network and UTA’s TRAX trains.

Who should use Air Tracker?

It’s no secret that poorer and more disadvantaged groups tend to have greater exposure to pollution and poor air quality.

Sarah Vogel, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Senior Vice President, Healthy Communities describes how Air Tracker can help those in these communities.

“Breathing dirty air is bad for our health, and these health effects are not distributed equally,” said Vogel. “The poorer and more disadvantaged groups disproportionately suffer the greater exposures and health impacts from air pollution. We hope community leaders and individuals will use this pollution data to hold polluters accountable and advocate for clean air policy change.”

The short answer to who should use Air Tracker is everyone — but it’s not yet available everywhere. The EDF says Air Tracker can be adapted to be used in other areas including those that may not yet feature extensive, hyper-local air quality monitoring programs.