Exploding Utah’s Weak Link: Increasing Air Pollution


SALT LAKE CITY – Kevin Perry had just started his morning routine and was out to get the newspaper when he realized there was something wrong with the sky.

An atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah, Dr. “Within 30 seconds I was coughing and my throat was sore,” Perry said that morning in August. “It was the absolute worst air quality I’ve ever experienced in my life.”

Over 500 miles away, shrouded in smoke from California’s massive wildfires, Salt Lake City passed smog-drenched megacities like New Delhi and Jakarta that morning. the dirtiest air from any major city in the world.

The dreadful distinction alarmed both longtime residents and newcomers; A bustling economy and easy access to outdoor activities like skiing and mountain biking fuel Utah. fastest growing population any state.

But the consequences of growth, including more vehicles on the road, and wildfire smoke this summer are exacerbating an already dismal deterioration in air quality caused by a prolonged drought.

Drought and water changes have reduced the Great Salt Lake, the country’s largest body of water after the Great Lakes, to its lowest levels in more than a century, scientists say. The result is large areas of parched lake bed similar to a dried up lake. Aral sea In the former Soviet Union, Utah exposes millions of people to dust storms filled with arsenic and other toxic elements.

President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Dr. “Every time the wind blows, we are exposed to the scattering of dust from these dry lake beds,” said Brian Moench. “There are remnants of pesticides and agricultural chemicals that have migrated into the lake for decades.”

For now, the slow-motion ecological catastrophe of the shrinking Great Salt Lake seems to stand in contrast to the vibrancy of Salt Lake City, the nerve center of a $1.5 billion ski industry that is also home to outdoor clothing companies like Black Diamond. Cotopaxi and Kuhl.

But while the outdoor recreation industry relies on images of blue skies, scientists say air quality around the Wasatch Front, the metropolitan area where about 80 percent of people in Utah live, is getting much worse than many residents thought.

The bowl-like topography of the valley that includes Salt Lake City creates an inversion that traps air pollution — usually during the winter — from sources such as motor vehicle exhaust. This is very similar to the situation in Santiago, the capital of Chile, one of the most polluted cities in Latin America and surrounded by mountains.

A new problem that increases with the year-round population explosion is ground-level ozone pollution from sources such as power stations and cars, which can increase the frequency of asthma attacks and aggravate lung diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that the northern Wasatch Front airspace, which includes part of the Salt Lake City area, violated federal ozone standards. The move sparked fierce political debate over whether Utah’s oil and mining industries were raising ozone levels.

Ski magazine Powder is sounding the alarm about deteriorating air quality, especially during the winter months. warned“We may start to see visitors traveling with ski equipment and gas masks in Salt Lake.”

Wildfire smoke is now blowing from California, several big flames Keeping burning is also an extraordinarily toxic form of pollution. The particles can be much smaller than those coming from the chimneys, making them easier to inhale and get into the bloodstream.

Then there is the shrinkage of the Great Salt Lake. Although the lake’s water level has fluctuated greatly over time, the U.S. Geological Survey found in July that the lake had served its purpose. lowest grade since measurements began in 1875.

At average water elevation, the lake, which accumulates salt and other minerals because it has no outlet to the ocean, spans 1,700 square miles. However, after losing 44 percent of its surface area, an area larger than the city of Houston, it today spans just 950 square miles.

The shrinkage of the lake creates surreal scenes. On Antelope Island, near a once bustling, now dormant marina, dozens of microbialites are exposed to air, reef-like mounds created by millions of microbes.

Because the lake’s brine shrimp and brine flies rely on microbialites as their primary food source, and millions of birds feed on shrimp and flies, falling water levels could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain if more microbialites are threatened. according to a research By the Utah Geological Survey in July.

Elsewhere on the Great Salt Lake, visitors who could once enjoy beachside picnic tables now have to walk across a dry lake bed to dip their toes in the water; shipwrecks began to emerge as the waters receded.

Julie Mattingly, commodore of the Great Salt Lake Yacht Club, founded in 1877, said that this year, dozens of boats at risk of being stranded on the lake bed were removed and placed in dry storage.

“There is no yachting on the lake at the moment,” Mattingly said, adding that club membership has dropped from around 100 members this year to 13. Now, he said, they do “land cruises” where the members drive around. and check out the historic sites by the lake.

The fall of the Great Salt Lake has drawn comparisons with the crisis around the Aral Sea, once the world’s fourth largest inland body of water. It began to dry up in the 1960s when the former Soviet Union built water diversion projects to irrigate parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Now most of the region youngest deserts in the world, releasing dust storm almost weekly and known by some as the Aral Sands. Closer to Utah, scientists are also comparing the collapsing water levels to Lake Owens in California, where its water was diverted to Los Angeles nearly a century ago.

Since then, Lake Owens has also emerged as a massive dust storm area. largest source of PM 10 in the countryA type of particle pollution that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat.

Atmospheric scientist Dr. “We’ve seen this happen in terminal catchment lakes around the world,” Perry said. He said the prolonged drought resulted in disappointing snowfall in the surrounding mountains; While the lake could gain up to two feet from spring runoff, the smaller snowpack in winter only raised its level by six inches.

Another factor includes Utah’s policies to divert freshwater from the sources that feed the lake. More than 60 percent of the diverted water goes to agriculture.

Dr. “We’re diverting a lot of water from the Great Salt Lake,” Perry said.

As the lake continues to shrink, the consequences of such policies are alarming. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and Middlebury College in Vermont showed that 90 percent of the dust in the Wasatch Front comes from dry lake beds.

“This dust has the potential to have a huge impact on our population,” said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Department of Air Quality, referring to the drying up areas of the Great Salt Lake.

At the same time, water demand is rising in Utah as its population grows. While the entire state is in severe drought, many homeowners in Salt Lake City have lush green lawns, according to the National Drought Reduction Center.

Unlike other parched states in the West, which are moving more aggressively to limit water consumption, like Nevada, which this year bans “dysfunctional” grasses, including some lawns, in Utah. Governor Spencer Cox said recently that he was investigating the possibility of similar measures in Utah.

Despite concerns about water resources and the Great Salt Lake, Utah’s water consumption dwarfs that of many other states, including other arid climates. Sarah Null, a professor of watershed studies at Utah State University, said the state uses about 150 to 200 gallons per person per day.

Still, the already dire air quality readings are poised to get worse, said Jaimi Butler, coordinator of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College. “All this is happening while we’re not really seeing the effects of climate change yet,” he said.


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