VERNAL, Utah — Throughout the winter months, air quality is an issue on the minds of many who live in Utah, especially those who live in mountainous areas like the Uintah Basin. Because of cold winter temperatures and pollutant emissions from both businesses and residents, air quality can reach dangerous levels.
Utah State University Uintah Basin researcher Seth Lyman, director of the Bingham Research Center, regularly studies ozone in the basin. USU works together with the State of Utah and local officials to monitor ozone levels. USU provides industry leaders, regulatory agencies, environmental groups and others with factual information that can be used to make decisions and inform the public.
Lyman answered several questions that could be on the minds of residents looking to do their part in combatting bad air.
What is ozone and why is it harmful at high surface levels?
Ozone is a colorless gas found in the air. Depending on where it occurs, ozone can be good or bad. Good ozone is found naturally in the upper atmosphere — anywhere from 10 to 30 miles above the Earth’s surface. This ozone layer shields the earth from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. This type of ozone is beneficial to everyone.
Bad ozone, however, is formed near the surface when air pollutants (such as emissions from vehicles, power plants, refineries, etc.) react chemically in sunlight. Among other reactions, this causes the normal oxygen that we breathe, O2, to bond with a third oxygen atom to create O3, or ozone.
Exposure to ozone, even at relatively low levels, can have harmful health effects, especially to those with sensitive lung or respiratory issues. Sensitive groups can include, but are not limited to, individuals with asthma or other lung diseases, children and older adults, and those who are active outdoors for long periods of time.
“Ozone is very reactive and that third oxygen atom readily reacts with a lot of chemicals, including the chemicals that make up our lung tissue,” Lyman said. “When we breathe that in, it reacts with our lungs and the lungs can become inflamed and irritated. Because of these dangers, ozone is regulated by the EPA. The EPA’s goal is to keep the air healthy for everyone to breathe.”
Generally, ozone pollution is more likely to form during warmer months. However, the Uintah Basin experiences high concentrations of ozone during some winters due to strong, multi-day temperature inversions that facilitate the buildup of pollution from local sources, including the oil and gas industry.
Why does air get so bad in winter?
There are two basic ingredients that ozone needs to form. The first is there must be pollutant emissions. These can come from sources such as car tailpipes, emissions from homes using gas furnaces or wood fireplaces, and it can come from industry sources. In the Uintah Basin, much of the winter emissions come from the local gas and oil industry. These industrial emissions are especially suitable for creating winter ozone.
The second ingredient for ozone is the right meteorology. Ozone can be dispersed by wind and stormy conditions. Ozone sticks around when weather conditions are such that the air stays in place. Adding that to a deep snowpack, ozone is likely to be created more readily.
Bad air can get trapped low to the ground due to a phenomenon known as temperature inversion. When there is snow on the ground and sunshine, this sunlight is reflected, creating warmer air above the surface. This layer of warm air traps cooler air closer to the ground. This cool air traps pollutants close to the ground, preventing them from dispersing into the atmosphere. This concentration of pollutants, including ozone, leads to poorer air quality.
“Strong, multi-day temperature inversions only occur when we have plenty of snow on the ground,” Lyman said. “The snow helps create ozone because snow reflects sunlight back into space, which keeps it from absorbing and warming the surface. This allows the surface air to stay cold and keeps pollution from blowing away.
“Ozone is formed from sunlight, and when sunlight bounces off the snow, you increase the amount of sunlight available. This creates more of these chemical reactions that rely on sunlight, and those reactions happen faster and more often. Ozone tends to build up in those conditions.”
What are levels like right now?
Levels of ozone fluctuate regularly. However, with this year’s unusually deep snowpack, levels of ozone have been high and have stayed high for longer periods.
“The reason we have had so much ozone this winter and for so long is because we have such a good snowpack this winter,” Lyman said. “And this amount of snow is pretty unusual for the Uintah Basin. There is always snow in the mountains in the winter, but down in the lower elevations of the basin, it tends to be too low for snow to stick around all winter. It occasionally does, like this winter. In the 11 years that I’ve been here, the snow depth and percent snow cover we currently have is unprecedented.”
The deeper snowpack has led to snow lasting longer, even in lower elevations. This, in turn, has led to more ozone production, including some very high ozone days. And ozone could continue to increase until the snow.
“Ozone is forming more quickly because the days are getting longer and we have more intense sunlight as we move farther from the solstice,” Lyman said. “More sunlight means more time and energy to make ozone.”
What can I do to help?
Emissions that create NOx pollution include gas furnaces, wood fireplaces and car emissions. VOC pollution comes from engines, fueling stations, personal care products like makeup and deodorant, and oil and gas operations.
While ozone buildup is a result of a combination of factors, there are many things that residents can do to help combat the bad air. These include:
- Reducing vehicle use: Use public transportation, carpools or walk if possible.
- Avoid gas-powered tools such as snow blowers and leaf blowers.
- Avoid burning wood: fireplaces help contribute to emissions.
- Try to conserve energy: Reducing energy consumption and using energy-efficient appliances can reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned to generate electricity.
“I’m not advocating that people stop using deodorant,” Lyman said jokingly. “But they can drive less, carpool and keep their thermostat at a reasonable range. Those types of things can help people save money and also help reduce pollution.”
How can I know what levels are and when things may worsen?
The Bingham Research Center sends out email alerts throughout the winter months (Dec. 1 through March 15) to inform companies and residents in the Uintah Basin of current ozone levels. Frequency of alerts depends on ozone levels but is no less frequent than every two weeks.
The purpose of these alerts is to provide the oil and gas industry and others with real-time information about air quality in the Basin so they can take action to reduce emissions of ozone-forming pollutants when it matters most.
While the alerts are mainly designed to inform industries of real-time data, the public is also welcome to sign up for alerts.
“Anyone who wants to can sign up for the program,” Lyman said. “We give an email alert as far in advance as we can that ozone is predicted to go high so that people and companies can reduce emissions and keep ozone as low as possible.”
To sign up for winter alerts, visit www.usu.edu/binghamresearch/ozone-alert.
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