How has COVID-19 impacted Utah’s air quality?

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – While many of the changes in 2020 have been challenging to work through, there may be at least one silver lining after all.

Amid stay-at-home orders and working from home, the Utah Department of Transportation says during this past year traffic has been down nearly 40%, and less traffic means better Utah air quality, at least according to one local study.

Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality released findings from University of Utah Department of Atmospheric Sciences assistant professor Logan Mitchell. Mitchell analyzed data from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) air monitoring stations along the urban corridors of Northern Utah and his findings offered a glimpse of what Utah could be like if road traffic were to continue at its current pace.

Mitchell tells ABC4 this is a topic he has always been interested in studying. “As a scientist, I’ve understood academically that when emissions are reduced there would be an immediate improvement in air quality, but that kind of event has never really happened before,” He says.

“So when the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up and the stay at home recommendations reduced traffic emissions, it was really interesting that ordinary folks were noticing the improvement in air quality here in Utah, and also around the world.

“In addition, I drive an electric car, and seeing the improvement in air quality that came with a reduction in traffic of ~40% helped me realize the huge environmental benefits that will come as more and more people start to drive zero-emission vehicles,” says Mitchell.

According to Mitchell, the air quality along the Wasatch Front in the month of March is usually ‘good’ on the Air Quality Index but the reduction in emissions this past March has made air quality even better than usual.

For his study, Mitchell took measurements from DAQ’s monitoring station at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City. Additional measurements were collected at monitoring stations in Sugarhouse, the University of Utah, and at a station in the southwest corner of the Salt Lake Valley.

Mitchell’s findings come from March 15-31, when state leaders were pushing for ‘stays safe, stay home’ efforts from Utah residents.

Mitchell found that oxides of nitrogen, ozone, particulate matter, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide all showed levels during March 2020 that were consistent with healthier air when comparing them to previous years at the same time.

NOx: Oxides of nitrogen levels were 57% lower in 2020 than the average level from 2010-2019. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was 36% lower than average.

Courtesy of The University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences

O3: (Ozone) levels were about the same but were slightly elevated in the evening. Researchers say that this is characteristic of less NOx in the air and less reaction between NOx and ozone at night. This finding is also consistent with what scientists would expect with decreased NOx emissions.

Courtesy of The University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences

PM2.5: Particulate matter is significantly down compared to the 2010-2019 averages.

Courtesy of The University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences

CO2: Carbon dioxide levels are at 19% and 33% lower than average at the Sugarhouse and U stations respectively according to Mitchell’s research.

SO2: Sulfur dioxide remained around typical levels in 2020. Mitchell says that this isn’t surprising given that there are not many SO2 sources in the Salt Lake Valley.

Courtesy of The University of Utah’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences

The DAQ points out that while Mitchell’s data has not been peer-reviewed yet, his measurements provide a consistent picture of cleaner air from reduced emissions during the pandemic.

Planning your errands out ahead of time to avoid extra trips, carpooling, using public transit, and teleworking are all small personal efforts the DAQ says will improve the state’s air quality for years to come.

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