Now for a real solution to Utah’s pollution

Feb 2 2013 - 11:55pm


Pick your poison. Snow or ... well, actual poisons.

It would appear Mother Nature has decided to offer us the choice of two equally undesirable forecasts this winter in Northern Utah -- crushing amounts of The White Stuff, or those totally toxic temperature inversions.

It is a sad day indeed when the rest of us -- the ones who aren't skiers, who don't make money plowing strip mall parking lots, or who aren't militant about that whole "We need the snowpack" hand-wringing thing -- are begging for a little snow just so we can breathe again.

So, what'll it be, folks? Death by snow, or death by inversion? Shoveling-induced heart attack, or pollutant-caused lung disease?

All too often this winter, we've been blessed with the distinction of having the worst air in the entire country. Not that it's completely our fault, mind you. Because the real problem is, whoever designed the topography of our geographic region did a fairly poor job of it. Large valleys, completely surrounded by mountains? Who comes up with this stuff?

The science behind the temperature inversion gets a bit technical, but let me see if I can explain it:

If we are to believe our TV meteorologists -- and really, when have they ever lied to us? -- an inversion occurs when a layer of colder air near the surface of the Earth gets trapped beneath a layer of warmer air aloft. When that happens, then something else happens, causing a third thing to happen, and blah-blah-blah, the air in the valleys gets all icky. Understand?

No? Well then, how about this: Let's say you open your garage door, start the car and leave it running. Not the healthiest thing you could do, but as long as that garage door stays open, you have a fighting chance. Now let's say you close the garage door; now you've got trouble. And that's what an inversion is like: closing the garage door.

What we need are some answers to this vexing winter pollution problem. And not those hard we'll-all-have-to-make-sacrifices-together answers, either. What we really need are easy answers. Answers that marginally address the symptoms without actually forcing us to solve the problem. Answers that don't make us change any of our own personal habits. Answers that inconvenience someone else, not me.

What, are you telling me that we can fake putting a man on the moon, but we can't come up with a strategy to fool Mother Nature?

I already know what some of you are going to say. "Why not just pollute less?" To which I say: "Hey, that's a capital idea! And maybe we could all just start riding our unicorns to work?"

Child, please. Clearly, we Americans have neither the time nor the inclination to figure out how to cut back on our fossil-fuel consumption. C'mon, we're a country that would rather invent -- and prescribe -- a pill to lower our cholesterol than eat healthier and exercise.

Seriously, we don't need a way to produce less pollution, just a better way to deal with the pollution we've got. Basically, we need the environmental equivalent of a Lipitor to clean out the clogged arteries of our lower atmosphere. And lucky for you, I have a plan. What we need is ...

... an exhaust fan. A really big one.

I'll leave it to the egghead scientists and engineers to determine just how big that sucker will have to be to clear all of the gunk out of our valleys (I'm guessing they don't stock the size we need at local home improvement stores), but if I may say so myself, a humongous exhaust fan is sheer genius in its simplicity. And before you simply dismiss this idea out-of-hand, you should know that Plan B involves everyone turning up their furnaces and throwing open all their doors and windows, thereby heating the air near the Earth's surface and promoting atmospheric convection.

The idea for the huge exhaust fan came to me where most brilliant ideas come from -- the bathroom. I'd taken a particularly warm shower that day, and had forgotten to turn on the bathroom fan. By the time I shut off the hot water, one could barely see across the room to the bathroom mirror. Ah, but within a few minutes of running the exhaust fan, the air had cleared noticeably.

So, laugh if you must, but I believe a huge exhaust fan -- or perhaps a series of huge exhaust fans -- could give us the air of our dreams.

Besides, the idea of using machinery to simply suck our climate problems away is certainly not without precedent in this state.

West Desert Pumping Project, anyone?

Next week: Mark Saal tackles winter's other vexing problem -- the treacherous ice and snow on our streets. (Short answer? Roads made entirely of salt.) Contact him at 801-625-4272 or

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