What Exactly is Inversion, and Why Does it Matter?


Photo: A clear view across the valley and the Great Salt Lake, a rare occurrence.

Phineas Johnson

The term “inversion” is thrown around a lot in Salt Lake, especially on winter days when we can not even see the mountains. Everyone likely knows “inversion” means “bad air,” but what is it exactly? Put rather simply, inversion is when air temperature is flipped. This happens when air near the ground cools faster than air higher up. This most commonly occurs in valleys, like the one that we live in.

Problems arise when air pollution is produced in the valley, increasing particulate matter in the air as it becomes trapped in the cooler, lower layer. When combined with smoke from fires, this can create horrendous air conditions. In fact, on August 6th, 2021, Salt Lake had the worst air quality in the world, surpassing cities like Delhi and Kathmandu. The air at one point had an AQI (an index for air quality that accounts for ground level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, and sulfur dioxide) rating of 214, according to IQAir.com. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA classifies that level in the “Very Unhealthy” range. Such conditions lead to everyone having difficulty breathing, specifically affecting those with asthmatics and heart diseases.

These short term effects are concerning, but long term effects are far worse. Salt Lake often has poor air, which can lead to lung, heart, and brain damage. In fact, The World Health Organization, WHO for short, says that “one third of deaths from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease are due to air pollution.” The effects are often compared with life long smokers.

Clearly such air quality is not desirable, but is there anything to be done about it? At the beginning of the Covid lockdown in 2020, Salt Lake had some of it’s cleanest air in years. This was primarily due to very few people driving because they were all working from home. Pollution will always be an issue, but it’s severity can be reduced through the use of public transportation. According to the EPA, a typical gas-powered car produces 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in a year. So next time you need to go somewhere, consider all of your options before getting in the driver’s seat. Our lungs thank you.