By Emerson Andrews, Sustainability Resource Center
Every winter the air quality problem hangs over the Salt Lake Valley. A gray-brown murk fills the city and residents are left to breathe in the toxic air. When the toxic inversions are thick, more residents find themselves in the hospital with respiratory issues, leaving Salt Lakers wondering how they can get out from underneath this mess.
The first step in understanding the solution is fully understanding the problem. While we do know that the three major sources of the pollution are cars, homes, and industry, we don’t know what areas of the valley are most affected. In order to understand the where and why of the pollution, the University of Utah is creating one of the foremost air quality monitoring centers in the country. The Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund (SCIF) granted $7,700 to enhance the effort.
The University of Utah Air Quality & Trace Gas Monitoring Center, located on the 8th floor of the William Browning Building, is responsible for maintaining trace gas observation networks in the Salt Lake Valley, Uinta Basin, Cache Valley, and Heber Valley. These networks consist of a growing number of instruments that are capable of capturing cutting-edge air quality data that will be key to understanding the chemical details of the air pollution that plagues the Wasatch corridor.
With the help of SCIF, students Ben Fasoli and Luke Leclair-Marzolf, under the guidance of Associate Professor of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, John C. Lin, are trying to share the U’s air quality efforts with the larger campus community by developing key improvements to the Air Quality & Trace Gas Monitoring Center. The development of the center is a key way for the University of Utah to play an active role in addressing Salt Lake’s air quality issues.
As part of their SCIF project, Fasoli and Leclair-Marzolf will be placing two touch-screen monitors in the William Browning Building. The monitor will be just outside of the center’s laboratory on the 8th floor and the second will be located near the Two Creek Coffee House on the ground floor. These screens will make the real-time data available to the campus by offering an interactive way to see the air we are breathing.
In addition to the touchscreens, the center will hire two undergraduate students to help further air quality research. The first student, who will be recruited from the Atmospheric Sciences department, will maintain the instruments and interpret the data. The second student will be in charge of programming and web development for the center and will create usable, public data for the touch screens and the web pages.
Recently, the monitoring center expanded the breadth of its research by introducing a mobile testing unit. Since December 2014, there has been a monitoring unit atop a TRAX train. This state-of-the-art unit provides researchers a better understanding of the variable exposure to pollutants for those living in the Salt Lake Valley by delivering real-time data. The data has already improved the understanding of vertical trace gas and aerosol profiles in the valley and has identified some point source methane emissions.
Researcher John Lin is excited about this new data.
“Through these unique observations, we hope to characterize how pollutants are distributed in different parts of Salt Lake Valley, at various times of the day, with fine granularity,” Lin says. “Then we seek to understand the emission patterns, meteorological processes and chemical phenomena that explain the observed pollutant distributions.”
John Lin hopes that the new data, in combination with other environmental information, can eventually help hospitals make connections between who is getting sick and where they live.
The development of the monitoring center directly supports the University’s sustainability efforts while fulfilling an urgent need for more in-depth air quality research. Once we can better understand the details of the pollution problem, we can better understand how to reduce emissions in order to make Salt Lake a more livable city.
Emerson Andrews is the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund coordinator for the Sustainability Resource Center. Want to learn more about the grants? Email him at email@example.com.