About two weeks ago, I left my home in West Virginia and headed to Salt Lake City, Utah, in search of taller mountains, bigger snowstorms and sunnier skies. As I drove westward along highway 70, it seemed I would certainly find all of these things. My journey was filled with vast expanses and beautiful scenery — I felt so free, like I could finally breathe. Little did I know, that feeling would not last very long.
As I crossed over the Wasatch Mountains into the valley where Salt Lake City lies, the clean, fresh, air of the west soon gave way to a yellowish-brown fog. The air I was breathing felt thick and dirty. In red flashing letters, as if to display a sense of urgency, a sign above my head read "AIR QUALITY IS VERY POOR. DRIVE LESS." Not exactly the welcoming I was hoping for upon my arrival to my new home.
When I asked my new roommate about the murky air and the highway sign, she replied rather nonchalantly, "Oh, the inversion has been bad lately. You probably shouldn't run or exercise outside." At this point I was starting to get freaked out. I didn't know what inversion meant, but I couldn't believe that I had just picked up my life and moved to a place where it wasn't safe to be outside. I decided I needed to do some research on this "inversion" business.
So what is inversion exactly? It is a process in which a pocket of cold air gets trapped beneath a cap of warmer, less dense air. Usually the air near the surface of the earth is warmer than the air above it. During an inversion, the exact opposite occurs. Inversions prevent convection from occurring in the colder air mass — meaning air molecules cannot move or transfer heat. In a valley city like Salt Lake, this causes pollutants, dirt and dust particles to become trapped near the earth's surface. They are suspended — unable to travel upward and out of the city — and the air becomes still and murky. The smog leads to respiratory and other health problems, reduced visibility on roadways, and sometimes even airline delays.
Though my research into the inversion issue certainly made me think twice about my move, it turns out that poor air quality due to inversion isn't a year-round problem in Salt Lake City, but more of a seasonal issue. Inversion isn't a huge problem in the warmer part of the year. In the winter months, however, large snowstorms lead to cooler temperatures near the earth's surface, creating the perfect setting for inversion to occur. During these times, Salt Lake City harbors some of the worst air quality in the nation.
For a long time, the concepts of climate change and global warming remained in the realm of science — they weren't yet tangible to me. Now that I have moved to a city that visibly suffers from pollution and overpopulation, these concepts have become all too real. Ironically, as the smog has begun to settle in the Salt Lake valley, the veil of ignorance has lifted from my eyes. If I want the air I breathe to be clean, I'm going to have to clean up my act. So goodbye, car ... it's time to commit fully to public transportation.