Saturday, January 19, 2013


For those who hear about inversions and wonder why we whine about them, this is a great semi-scientific explanation.

Illustration: The photo shows rising steam from a power plant near my home at sunset on the first day of an inversion.

See how the steam reaches a certain height then is flattened and held down?

An atmospheric inversion traps all vehicle, household, commercial, industrial emissions, etc. close to the ground. After a few days (or weeks), it gets quite nasty, especially in a highly populated place. It's also a great illustration of what we normally let float up into the higher atmospheric layers.

There's an explanation here: NOAA Temperature Inversion

This pic was taken three days ago, but now it's too hazy to see the steam from the power plant at all, even in broad daylight.

Windless winter days in conjunction with geographic layout mean a lot of inversions in Utah. They are dangerous for certain groups at best, and everyone in reality.

I just Googled "air quality Utah 2012" and the lead stories include a pollution report that gives 7 Utah counties failing grades, a NOAA research group with an article titled, "Utah's winter air quality mystery," and a Huffington Post article titled, "Utah Air Pollution Plans Scrapped, State Board to Start Over."

Along with typical traffic cams, we also have "HazeCams" and air quality maps that warn people to stay inside and limit physical activity, especially children, elders, and anyone with a heart or lung disease. It runs on a 6-colored scale: Good (green), Moderate (yellow), USG (Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, orange), Unhealthy (red), Very Unhealthy (darker red), and Hazardous (dark maroon).

There's a health alert associated with each.

Dark maroon health alert reads, "Everyone may experience more serious health effects."

Salt Lake City inversion December 11, 2012

There are also restrictions put into place, like, don't build a fire to get warm on red air days.


Don't go outside.

We've experienced a lot of poor air quality days this year, first because our summer was full of wildfires, (almost 1500 in Utah alone, with smoke blowing in from fires in our neighboring states of CO and ID), and second because this winter has been ... unusual.

It's been cold.

Not just cold. That's normal. It's been COLD. Like really really cold. And it hasn't let up for a month straight. We've only had one day that peaked (for about an hour) over freezing.

That hour, 34°F, was lovely.

At night we've been getting down to... -4°F, -8°F, -11°F (-24°C) ...

During the day we've been in the single digits and teens.

And I know that's normal for some places, but not here. Yeah, we have winter, but this is unusually cold.

Our pre-Christmas snow (so magical!) is still here. It never went away. It has been occasionally added upon by less magical post-Christmas snow. Which is also still here.

There's nothing like dropping off your kid at preschool when it's 1°F. Or heading to the store at 10AM when it's risen to a whopping 3°F. Makes you want to wake up, get out, and make a happy start to the day!

That's probably why I found this so funny, filmed four days ago.

Comparatively, it's true that Utah's got nothing on the people in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories or those crazies at Concordia Station, Antarctica. They're welcome to laugh at us like we laugh at California. Or at least at California's newscasters.

(Although, at this very moment, we really are colder here than at any of the Antarctic stations, except for Concordia and the actual Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.)

And we have been pretty consistently colder than Milwaukee.

See what I mean? Weird.

But let's add in an inversion.

Inversions get blown out by wind, tamped down by rain and snow. But when it's simply and unceasingly cold, they just exist.

And nobody wants to go outside.

I'm definitely not running out in these conditions. I've been training at the gym on a treadmill. Yet, like it or not, my first race is still clipping toward me in the same manner as time.

My first race of the year happens on February 9th. It's the Hale Freezes Over 10K, never cancelled, no matter the temp, the blizzard, or the inversion.

So what was the point of this post?

There was none. I'm just whining.

And since we started with the power plant, I'll end with the power plant.

Bridgette and I went exploring and found something neat on the flip side of the plant, the side that's not obvious from the main road. The sound you hear (a constant whooshing/gushing) is the hot water vapor from the turbines escaping into cold air and instantly condensing. It's hard to see, but there was a deluge of rain inside the structure. Make it full-screen for better effect.

It was very cool! I mean cold...

I mean awesome.


Anonymous said...

...brrr... It makes me hurt to think about it. I am glad you have somewhere indoors to run, and good luck with the race.


Lore said...

Stay warm and breathe easy.

MIke said...

Question for you about the inversions. I've been reading a LOT about these inversions. Many stories about people who develop very bad health issues as a result of them. Does staying indoors while they are occurring keep you safe? Also, I read that there were 38 bad air days last year. Does this mean that the air quality up there is GOOD when there is no inversion? I want to move up there, but now I am scared after reading so many horror stories. There's actually a facebook group someone started for people to share their stories about leaving the area because of the inversions.

Kel said...


This was an abnormal winter for us, more cold days and more inversions than I can remember in 15 years. Official data-set comparisons seems to be backing up my memory.

And yes, staying indoors does help, as does getting above the inversion. If you like to ski, you'll be above the pollution for your sport.

During non-inversion days, the air is delicious. Clean days are super clean.

Having said all that, the air was bad enough often enough this winter that I obviously felt the need to write a post! That's partly because I've been training for a big race, and the air quality was keeping me inside. I know people who run outside no matter the conditions, but I can't do that. There are many, many good sides to Utah, but there's no hiding that inversions are pretty gross.

MIke said...

Hi Kel, Thank you for your reply. Having lived there and experienced the inversions, would you move there again?

Our family business is such that we don't need to leave the house so it wouldn't be a problem to stay inside during the majority of the inversion periods. Others have said that staying inside doesn't do much good because the air you breath inside ultimately comes from outside?!

I'm pretty spooked after reading all the horror stories about people developing all kinds of health problems due to the pollution so I don't want to make a mistake. I love everything about Utah and I'm hoping the inversions don't become a deal breaker for us......

Kel said...

Mike, there are areas in Utah that are less affected by inversion, so if you are really interested in moving here and your family business allows you to work from home, those would be good options. Most of the population lives in the valley, in Utah and Salt Lake Counties. There are a handful of other counties where the air is cleaner on inversion days... and some of them are in really beautiful areas not far from high population densities. I'm way more cold sensitive than most people, so the cold/inversion combo makes me restless, but yes, having said that, I love this state. And I didn't grow up here, so I come by it honestly. It's beautiful and relatively safe and healthy compared to most of the U.S.

MIke said...

After researching so much, it seems the only place that's safe from the inversion is up on top of the mountain in Suncrest. But the double HOA fee up there is a deal breaker for me. I think after all the research I've done, we've decided not to move to Utah and are now looking north to Idaho Falls which is also very beautiful. I do hope something gets done about the pollution problem in Utah though!!!