It can be hard to get excited about Cache Valley weather in mid-January. Unless you’re a skier, of course — or maybe an air quality researcher.
Utah State University researchers are joining in on one of the largest and most comprehensive air quality studies ever conducted in the state. The month-long study started earlier this week and will gather pollution data from Provo to Smithfield, according to Randy Martin, an air quality expert and research associate professor at USU.
The data will help scientists understand more about the complex chemical processes that turn atmospheric ingredients into harmful particulate pollution, as well as how that pollution builds up during winter inversions.
“It’s really giving us the ability to truly understand, almost at the molecular level, what’s going on in our air,” Martin said.
And researchers aren’t just thinking two-dimensionally — in addition to stations gathering air quality data along the ground, a specialized airplane will fly over Cache, Salt Lake and Utah valleys, above and through inversions, collecting data.
Researchers from three federal agencies, a state agency and several universities are teaming up for the Utah Winter Fine Particulate Study. To give a sense of the study’s scope, here are some of the participants:
n The Utah Department of Environmental Quality
• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA
n The Environmental Protection Agency
n The U.S. Department of Agriculture
n University of Utah
n Brigham Young University
n University of Toronto
n University of Washington
n University of Minnesota
One of the visiting scientists is Russell Long, a research chemist with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Long grew up in Utah, attending Southern Utah University and grad school at BYU. While he’s lived in North Carolina for the past 15 years, he’s excited to be back in Utah for the study, collaborating with some of the top pollution researchers in the country.
Doing research for the EPA, Long said, means frequent collaboration with other federal agencies, but it’s not often that he gets to work with academia.
“To me, this type of collaboration is very exciting, and this needs to be the type of work that we do in the future,” Long said.
Despite the study’s ambitious level of collaboration, Martin said it’s not a typically well-funded project.
“None of the investigators from the universities here have a million-dollar contract to do this research,” Martin said. “Most of the university people doing this are doing it back-of-the-envelope, bootstrap.”
The study came together after the results of a 2015-16 pilot study from the DEQ and NOAA. Building on that pilot, the new study includes more participants, more equipment and more locations.
Martin said he’s been surprised at how quickly everything’s fallen into place.
“In my mind, it’s almost like — I don’t know if you remember the ‘Little Rascals’ movies and TV shows from way back when — all these little kids would go ‘Let’s put on a show,’ and ‘my dad’s got a barn, I’ve got an old piano,’ and it’s kind of like this,” Martin said. “We all brought in our stuff that we had and are doing our best to get a really positive result.”
The study started at an opportune time in Cache Valley, as an inversion built up earlier in the week and was pushed out by snow on Wednesday and Thursday, helping researchers capture data at various points during the inversion cycle.
“To me, that’s what makes a good study, is to have a little variability,” Long said. “After the storm comes, we’ll probably get another inversion and see it all form again. And that’s really why we’re here, is to see those processes.”
While data from the study will help Utah scientists and officials understand air problems in the state, Long said, it will also help the EPA test ways to measure and study air pollution in Utah’s conditions. Those scientific instruments and techniques can then be used to help other places tackle similar pollution problems.
“It’s a unique airshed that we normally don’t work in,” Long said. “It’s completely different from the East Coast, and we’re excited to see what we find out.”