If you’ve spent any time in Salt Lake City or the rest of Utah’s Wasatch Front, you’re probably familiar with the Salt Lake Valley’s natural inversion and struggle with air pollution. If your exposure to Utah has been mostly weekend and weeklong ski trips and you’ve been fortunate with your timing, you may not know what we’re talking about. That being said, what both local and visitors may or may not be aware of is Park City’s vulnerability to the poor air quality that comes with the Wasatch inversion.
Airmass Inversions 101
An inversion occurs when the normal pattern of thermal distribution is reversed—or inverted. In other words, usually when you gain altitude—when you head from the Salt Lake Valley up Parley’s Canyon to Park City, it usually gets colder. This happens when a warm airmass settles over a cooler airmass. Typically, solar rays from the Sun are able to warm the land underneath the colder airmass and disrupt any would-be inversion. In the winter, however, these solar rays aren’t as strong, and if there’s snow cover on the ground, less of the Sun’s thermal energy is absorbed by the ground. An inversion is typically the result and, in some cases, will last until a low-pressure storm system knocks the warmer airmass out of the way.
These inversions are a geological phenomenon and were remarked on by early pioneers who build their campfires and witness the smoke hit a ceiling and spread out horizontally against the sky. For it’s not the thermal inversion that’s the trouble in the end, it’s the trapped dome of air—especially when that dome is habitat to a million people, their cars and their industry.
Park City Air Quality for Skiers
Because it’s less common for visible signs of air pollution to manifest in Park City—especially compared to the heavy fog that descend upon the Salt Lake Valley during the worst periods of inversion—it’s easy to think that Park City gets off virtually scot-free. The truth is….a little more polluted than that. Park City can experience its own less intense inversions. Plus, some of the air pollution for Salt Lake City does inevitably leak out and up Parley’s Canyon. And while there are only some 8,500 permanent residents, there are roughly 600,000 yearly visitors, most of them crammed into the few short months that are peak season for skiing—and for inversions.
Now, we typically think of warming temperatures as the primary threat to our beloved ski town, but there’s also a secondary health concern associated with air pollution. While there are few immediate health concerns for the typically youthful skier, those with respiratory issues or those of advanced age or the very young may want to avoid the physical exertion that comes with being on the mountain when the air quality isn’t cooperating. But it’s also no secret that this type of health recommendation is an issue for the ski resorts who are trying to market reliable access to great skiing. That way, they can attract more out-of-town visitors who need to plan their trip in advance of the short-term weather forecast.
Ominously—and this may have changed since we posted this article—but ominously, we haven’t been able to find air quality information for Summit County listed among the state and federal website resources for air quality monitoring:
Though unsubstantiated, we’ve heard that the ski resorts may be pressuring county and state officials to prevent this information from being readily available to the public. Though problematic in their own right, you may still be able to find certain types of air quality information private weather companies and their websites.