DEQ: Air Scientists Have Eyes in the Sky for PM2.5

By Donna Kemp Spangler

Photo of inversions shows the build-up of fine particulates or PM2.5

Fine particulates (PM2.5) build up during inversions.

It doesn’t take a scientist to know Utah has prolonged periods of bad air during the winter. But it does take a team of local and national scientific researchers to understand more fully why we have bad air.

For years, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s air-quality scientists have been focused on figuring out what causes Utah’s winter air pollution. The Division of Air Quality (DAQ) has already honed in on the fact that wintertime emissions come from industry (13 percent), vehicles (48 percent) and “area” sources like home heating, restaurants, and small manufacturing (39 percent). DAQ scientists know this by analyzing computer models and ground-based air measurements to trace the emission sources that form particulate matter known as PM2.5 , a major health concern because breathing can trap these particles in the lungs.

DAQ is about to take it to a new level: Starting this month an aircraft, equipped essentially with an air-monitoring station, will fly over the Wasatch Front and northern Utah during inversions and non-inversion periods to collect data. Extensive ground-based observations will be carried out at five locations including Smithfield and Logan in Cache Valley, University of Utah and Hawthorne Elementary in Salt Lake Valley, and Lindon in Utah Valley to provide continuous measurements relevant to PM2.5 formation. This will give researchers a better understanding of how the emissions of primary chemicals such as NOx, VOCs, and ammonia react to form PM2.5. This will also help DAQ scientists improve the performance of the computer model they use to develop regulatory controls that are both appropriate and effective.

Interior of the NOAA Twin Otter shows the range of study equipment for its small space. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Interior of the NOAA Twin Otter shows the range of study equipment for its small space. Photo courtesy of NOAA

The field campaign, “Utah Winter Fine Particulate Aircraft Study,” is being led by Dr. Munkhbayar Baasandorj and Dr. Steven Brown, and includes others at DAQ, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), University of Utah, Utah State University, Brigham Young University, University of Toronto, University of Washington and University of Minnesota. The research team will use NOAA’s specially equipped light aircraft known as the Twin Otter. The aircraft will fly over the Cache, Salt Lake, and Utah valleys from January 15 to February 14, 2017, to survey the chemical conditions responsible for the formation of PM2.5.

2016 Winter PM2.5 Study equipment on the rooftop at the University of Utah.

Air-quality monitoring equipment on the rooftop at the University of Utah from last year’s Winter PM2.5 study

The Utah Legislature provided about $130,000 as seed money to get the estimated $2 million project going. NOAA, EPA, USDA and the Universities are donating equipment and expertise. NOAA researchers, previously involved in the Uinta Basin winter ozone air quality studies, are now turning their attention to the Wasatch Front.

A better understanding of the causes of wintertime PM2.5 leads to more effective controls and ultimately better air quality and improved health. DEQ, through its active involvement with the scientific community, is a proactive and trusted partner in the effort to improve the quality of life for Utah citizens and businesses.

 

Want to know more? A detailed description of the study is available on our website.

Donna SpanglerI am the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. I write a monthly blog post. You can read my previous blog posts at deq.utah.gov. You can follow me on Twitter @deqdonna