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Spring air quality in Salt Lake is better than normal during the pandemic

Smog covers Salt Lake City as an inversion lingers. (Qiling Wang, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY– Air quality along the Wasatch Front is better during this time of year since implementing social distancing restrictions in March.

Scientists at the University of Utah and Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were curious about how physical distancing measures would impact Utah’s air quality. The results are in; Utah’s air has improved since Utahns started staying home. 

In a press release on Tuesday, both agencies stated air quality in Salt Lake is normally good during the spring season, “but the reduction in emissions from COVID-19 social distancing measures have made air quality even better than usual.”

One of the reasons for the drop in smog is due to the lack of cars on the road. 

“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.

However, as Utah continues to reopen businesses, the pollution will come back just as fast.  

According to Mitchell, data “suggests as the economy starts to recover and emissions ramp up, we’re going to see our air quality get worse again.” 

Measuring Utah’s pollution 

The U and DEQ scientists combined ground-based air quality and greenhouse gas emissions with satellite observations to collect the pollution measurements. 

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

Their research started on March 15, when physical distance measures were enforced throughout the state. Within the last half of March, Utah’s levels of nitric oxide, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide reduced significantly. 

Levels of nitric oxide were 57% lower and nitrogen dioxide was 36% lower than the average March. The lack of nitric oxide is specifically due to fewer cars on the road, especially during rush hours. 

Roughly, the Sugarhouse monitoring station is down 19% and the U monitoring station is 33% lower than average. 

Particle levels are down 59%, particularly at night. However, the U and DEQ state it’s unclear if the decrease is “due to reduced overall particulate matter emissions. Or reduced formation of particulate matter through atmospheric chemistry.” 

Moving forward on air quality 

The research team plans to continue monitoring the pandemic’s impact on pollution levels in the Salt Lake Valley. It’s a chance scientists refuse to pass up. 

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

“We are looking forward to further analyzing the data our monitors collected during this period when residents were teleworking and driving less. 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,” Bird continued. 

It’s important to note the findings collected by the U and DEQ have not been peer-reviewed. 

For the full report, click here
Find current air quality conditions from the Utah DEQ here and measurements from stationary and mobile air quality monitors through the University of Utah here.