U of U: Air quality in Utah better since COVID-19

Top Stories

Figure 3. Comparison of NO2 along the Wasatch front from late March in 2019 vs. 2020. Satellite NO2 observations are from the Tropomi instrument on the Sentinal-5 satellite. Red colors indicate higher concentrations of NO2.

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – If you thought the stay at home orders during the COVID-19 pandemic helped to make Utah’s air quality better, new test results show you were right.

In a press release issued by the University of Utah, first preliminary measurements show air quality along the Wasatch Front in March is better than usual due to the reduction in emissions and social distancing measures.

The analysis was done using data from Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) monitoring stations.

“These measurements, taken together, paint a consistent picture of cleaner air from reduced emissions, especially from reduced traffic,” said Logan Mitchell, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah. “It shows how fast the air quality improves after a reduction in emissions and suggests that as the economy starts to recover and emissions ramp up, we’re going to see our air quality get worse again.”

Bryce Bird, director of the Utah DEQ’s Division of Air Quality said for environmental scientists, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study the air quality impacts of fewer cars on the road.

“We are looking forward to further analyzing the data our monitors collected during this period when residents were teleworking and driving less,” said Bird. “Dr. Mitchell’s initial analysis shows a lot of promise and hopefully the final results will help inform behavior and policy in the coming years.”

Measurements of all air pollutants come from a monitoring station at Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake City and additional measurements of carbon dioxide come from monitoring stations in Sugarhouse, at the U, and in the southwest Salt Lake Valley.

Figure 5.  CO2 concentrations by hour of day observed at three of the UUCON monitoring sites.

Since many of Utah’s physical distancing measures were in effect by March 15, this research was done on the second half of March only.

  • NOx (oxides of nitrogen) levels were lower due to traffic reductions, especially during rush hour peaks. Nitric oxide (NO) levels were 57% lower than the average March, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) was 36% lower than average.
  • O3 (ozone) is about the same as usual at midday, but slightly elevated at night.  This is characteristic evidence of less NOx in the air and less reaction between NOand ozone at night. It’s consistent with what scientists think urban air would look like with decreased NOx  emissions.
  • PM2.5 (particulate matter) is down by 59%, particularly at night. It’s not clear yet whether that’s due to reduced overall particulate matter emissions or reduced formation of particulate matter through atmospheric chemistry.
  • CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels are at 19% and 33% lower than average at the Sugarhouse and U stations, respectively.
  • SO2 (sulfur dioxide) is around typical levels. Mitchell says this isn’t surprising, as there aren’t many SO2 sources in the Salt Lake valley.

“These results give me a lot of optimism about the future.” Mitchell said. “It shows that as we recover from the pandemic, if we invest in clean energy and electric vehicles, it’s really possible to clean up the air.”

Read the full report of preliminary results at atmos.utah.edu.

Find current air quality conditions from the Utah DEQ at air.utah.gov and measurements from stationary and mobile air quality monitors through the University of Utah air.utah.edu.

Have questions about coronavirus?

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

ABC4 PODCASTS

More Podcasts