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Why does Logan have 'the worst wintertime air' on the Wasatch Front?

Inversion over Logan, Utah.

Those in Cache Valley are no stranger to bad air quality, and this year’s cold, snowy winter has caused plenty of days that make you want to avoid going outside because of the terrible air.

But why does Cache County often have worse air quality than, say, Salt Lake County, despite having a fraction of their overall population?

“The Cache Valley, I describe it as a bathtub. We're surrounded in north, south, east, west, by mountains with a very, very small outlet Cutler reservoir," said Randy Martin, an associate research professor at Utah State University’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering. "So we track the air pollutants very effectively.”

Martin explained that other, more populated areas of the state don’t share the same bathtub quality as Cache County. Salt Lake, for example, has outlets to the north and south that allows bad air to escape when conditions are right.

The bathtub Martin referred to ensures Cache Valley’s bad air sticks around during inversions, something that can occur throughout the state.

Inversion is a meteorological event where warm air settles above a valley, while cold air — and pollutants in that valley — are trapped underneath with nowhere to go.

In the winter, typically Cache Valley has worse inversion spells than cities along the Wasatch, but Martin said it depends from year to year.

“Cache Valley this year, and historically, by historically (I mean) 15-20 years ago, has had the worst wintertime here compared to Wasatch Front," Martin said. "And a lot of that has to do with the fact that our winters are tougher and colder and longer lasting than along the Wasatch Front.”

Bad air quality can trigger both short and long-term health issues, ranging from irritation and decreased lung function to issues like asthma and an increased risk of heart attacks.

Despite the air quality issues, Martin says the state has made significant progress in terms of cutting back pollution and addressing air quality issues despite the state’s growing population.

He added that cold, snowy winters like this year’s and the subsequent bad air quality is a reminder there’s still work to be done.

Reporter Jacob Scholl covers northern Utah as part of a newly-created partnership between The Salt Lake Tribune and Utah Public Radio. Scholl writes for The Tribune and appears on-air for UPR.