Inversion may cast shadow over upcoming Winter Olympics

Thursday, December 6th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Every once in a while the clear mountain air around Salt Lake City is replaced by inversions, a brown, soupy haze that looks more like Los Angeles than the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Olympic organizers can plan for traffic, security breaches and even a lack of snow, but there's little to be done about the pesky atmospheric inversions that settle over the Olympic host city.

It's not just a question of ruining Olympic photo opportunities. The inversions also cause health problems for those with respiratory illnesses as well as the elderly and infants.

Like Denver's infamous ``brown cloud,'' Salt Lake's inversion is an unhappy result of being surrounded by mountains. When a high-pressure weather system slides over the area, it acts like a lid over the valley, trapping all the dust, vehicle exhaust and smokestack emissions close to the ground.

During long-lasting inversions, hospital emergency rooms fill with asthmatics, said local LDS Hospital spokesman Jess Gomez.

``There's no doubt that when we have a long inversion, we see a pattern of people coming into the emergency room,'' he said.

Brigham Young University economics professor Arden Pope, who has been researching the effects of pollution since the early 1980s, said the inversions were also directly linked to sick days and a higher death rate among people with heart disease and respiratory illnesses.

It's not the inversion that causes the trouble, but the smog that's trapped in it.

Rick Sprott, director of air quality for the state, has heard all the ideas on how to rid the valley of the brown blanket, including the half-baked suggestion to build a large fan to blow the muck out of the valley.

But the only way to lessen the effects of an inversion is to decrease automobile traffic, have fewer people using wood stoves and to clean up smokestacks.

Sprott predicted the familiar haze will make an appearance at the Olympics.

``I'll be very surprised if we don't see some kind of inversion that makes things look not so great,'' he said.

If that happens, it could prove to be a mixed bag. The ski slopes will be having clear, warm weather while all the dirty, cooler air will be stuffed into the valleys, Pope said.

``It will be sunny, warm and lovely on the ski slopes. And then, when you drive down into the city, it will be like driving into hell,'' Pope said.

No inversion means a nice view from the valley, but the potential for worse weather in the higher elevations.

``It's not clear which we want. But the truth is, we don't have any control of it either way, so we'll take what we can get, I guess,'' he said.