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We’re smack in the middle of the Salt Lake Valley’s hot ozone summer

Looking south through the hazy air over downtown Salt Lake City from the scenic mound at the Ensign Peak Trailhead, July 27, 2022.
Jim Hill
Looking south through the hazy air over downtown Salt Lake City from the scenic mound at the Ensign Peak Trailhead, July 27, 2022.

In recent days, ozone levels in Salt Lake County have been consistently high for sensitive groups, and experts say it’s part of the trend of warmer and sunnier summer months.

Ground level ozone forms from a combination of greenhouse gas emissions, warm temperatures and sunlight. It’s different from the stratospheric ozone layer, which protects people from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. July and August are the worst months for the Salt Lake City area when it comes to this colorless and odorless gas.

Bo Call, who runs the air monitoring network for the Utah Division of Air Quality, said so far this year ozone levels have been lower than in 2021, but things could get worse. In general, the levels have been higher the past few years compared to previous years, likely due to a lack of cloud formation.

“If we have warm temperatures, relatively stagnant air and a lot of sun, then we expect to see elevated levels of ozone,” he said. “That’s a naturally occurring process and we have a pretty high background [or base level] out here.”

Ozone levels decrease as the sun goes down and temperatures drop. Call recommended people avoid doing outdoor activities when air quality is at its worst, usually during the late afternoon.

Ozone can cause irritation and congestion and can be worse for people sensitive to air pollution. Meisei Gonzales, communications director of Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah, said people can do their part to lower emissions when levels are high.

“While, yes, this is something that we might be experiencing more frequently and at higher intensities,” he said, “it's important to still look at that mitigation part of how we can ensure to kind of safeguard our health and our environment as much as possible.”

In the short term, Utah Clean Energy Executive Director Sarah Wright said mitigation means using public transportation and carpooling to cut down on individual emissions. But in the long term, she said the state needs to do more to address climate change.

She said that means doing things like cleaning the electric grid, moving away from fossil fuels, and transitioning to electric cars and home systems.

“The main point with ozone is that it has two factors: the heat, which is getting worse with climate change, and the burning of fossil fuels for transportation mainly,” she said. “If we change our transportation and address climate change, we will be on a track to [have] much cleaner air.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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