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Scientists Take Flight To Study Utah's Winter Smog

If you’ve seen or heard a Twin Otter buzzing close overhead lately, there’s a good chance Robert Mitchell was in it. He’s commander of this National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s small plane that’s loaded with scientific gear to gather pollution data.

“It’s a very striking delineation between the pollution and the clear air above,” says Mitchell, talking about the flights through Utah’s infamous inversions. “It’s absolutely gorgeous to climb up above the pollution and see the mountains expand around you.”

He’s one of dozens of air-quality scientists who are midway through a month-long probe of Utah’s winter smog. The first-of-its-kind study relies on a small, specialized airplane that NOAA brought to Utah.

And if scientists are able to use this data to find solutions for northern Utah’s ugly pollution episodes, the air on the ground might someday look more like the crystalline air above the inversion.

Academic researchers – from the University of Utah, Weber State University, Brigham Young University and several outside Utah -- have teamed up with NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Utah Division of Air Quality on the $2 million study.

“This study is very important because it’s really letting us study the chemistry and meteorology – all of the processes that are contributing to these pollution episodes,” says Munkh Baasandorj, a principal investigator for the research at the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Scientists are identifying sources of winter smog chemicals and untangling the chemical interactions that make these puddles of cold air – the inversions -- so dirty and unhealthy.

Steve Brown, the principal investigator for NOAA. He says the aircraft research is key.

“What we really hope for data collection,” he says, “is that we will be able to inform the policy community in the state of Utah about what sorts of actions are going to be most effective at mitigating the issue.”

The Twin Otter is cleared for 80 research flights.

Scientists expect to quality checking the data for at least the next year, then sharing their findings in research papers.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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