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SALT LAKE CITY — It's only been five days, and it is January, but the bitter cold temperatures and thick smog are affecting our lifestyle choices and our health in Northern Utah.
"All you see is an orange cloud from up high," said Burgess Norrgard, who escaped the pollution up in Little Cottonwood Canyon Thursday.
This inversion will stick with us for a while, but we're nowhere near the three-week smog marathons that we've endured in the past.
During an inversion, the warmer air up high traps the colder air with the pollution down in the lowest parts of the valley. That's why so many people, if they get a chance, get away in the mountains.
Several miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon Road, as we looked west toward the valley, the pollution appeared as a sea of orange in the late afternoon sun.
"So if there is some beauty in Salt Lake, you cannot see it through the smog," Norrgard said.
LOGAN — Climatologists at Utah State University say they have developed a way to predict temperature inversions up to 30 days in advance.
They hope that knowing when and for how long an inversion will hit will help people and industries better manage the impact.
Extreme cold has settled over northern Utah this week, with some locations dropping below zero. A high-pressure system moved in, creating a strong valley inversion. It’s a pattern that’s not expected to change for a few days and is actually expected to intensify, with cold temperatures and bad air in the valleys.
Preparing for such occurrences earlier could bring changes in behavior.
“People might alter their driving habits,” said Robert Gilles, director of the Utah Climate Center at USU. “Just having that information, say, further ahead of time, allows industry, the health industry, all these various elements to perhaps plan accordingly.
The climate center looked at several factors in developing a model for predictions, including the impact of snow on the ground and whether clouds have moved in.
“Clear skies allow more infrared radiation to escape, and that makes the inversion even tighter,” Gilles said.
Climatologists at USU have been researching and improving their method over the past two years.
"There's the ridge moving in, the cold air, the clear skies, the snow, and then the topography all come in to play,” Gilles said.
Gilles said their prediction tool focuses mainly on the Intermountain West, areas affected by the Pacific Ocean. So far, results have been fairly accurate. “Up to 50 percent about 30 days out,” he said. The system is more accurate as it gets closer to the event.
“We do miss a few,” he said. “The system is not flawless by any means. This is part of our two-year period where we’ve been trying to fine-tune what we originally did in the research.”
He and Kevin Livingston, both visiting from Montana for several weeks, headed into the canyon to ski in the backcountry and get away from the bad air.
"It was great," Livingston said. "Got some altitude, got the lungs burning."
Burning from the exertion, not the pollution.
At the end of the day, a steady stream of cars descended from the winter resorts, back into the haze.
"It's not great," said Karen Hevel-Mingo, executive director of Breathe Utah. "We are in a situation where we have red air days, and it is forecasted to be that way for at least a week."
She pointed out the particulate matter (PM) 2.5 can especially harm people with respiratory problems and heart disease, but it's not good for any of us.
"Those are the small, little particles that we are going to breathe in, and they get stuck in your lungs," Hevel-Mingo said.
Not only are those particles bad to breathe, they also create that orange haze that we see off in the distance. It's so ugly and can often affect our moods.
According to Breathe Utah, about 60 percent of that pollution comes from our cars and trucks. So cutting down on idling and driving by taking public transit, or combining trips, makes a difference.
The state and many of our communities are working on solutions, too, because it's also an economic issue.
"One of the things that businesses ask about when they come here, is the air quality," Hevel-Mingo said, adding that some businesses choose to go elsewhere because of the pollution.
Fortunately, many visitors are willing to look for the silver lining in the orange cloud.
"If I did move into the Salt Lake area, I'd probably take part in some local grassroots political action to try to clean up the pollution," Livingston said. "But overall, I think it's still a beautiful city with great access to skiing, and one of the best places in the country."