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KUNC is among the founding partners of the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration of public media stations that serve the Western states of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.

Colorado and Utah's Worst-In-The-World Air Quality Precedes Grim Climate Report

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Markus Spiske
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Unsplash

Two Western cities registered the poorest air quality in the world over the last week as smoke from wildfires in northern California turned the skies over the Rocky Mountains into a chalky white abyss. On July 7, Denver’s air was the worst among international cities, according to IQAir.com. Salt Lake City was No. 1 the day prior.

University of Utah atmospheric scientist Derek Mallia says such pollution levels in these Mountain West cities is “unprecedented.”

“Just looking at some of the measurements that we've made across Salt Lake City and then the ones that I've seen in Denver, this is a factor of two, maybe even a factor of three greater than what I've seen in the past in terms of extreme air quality events,” he said.

The heavy fog gripping Salt Lake City stunned Utah Gov. Spencer Cox: “I don’t ever remember smoke from other states coming in so thick to Utah,” he tweeted.

Across the region, smoky skies are obscuring views of the West's iconic jagged peaks, but Mallia says what is in the smoke is more concerning. The plumes wafting across the West from wildfires in California, and some in Oregon and Washington, contain small particulate matter that can easily penetrate deep into the lungs.

While these extreme smoke events are concerning to researchers like Mallia, he says they are in line with trends over the last 10 to 20 years that reflect declining air quality across the region, particularly as wildfire seasons stretch months longer than they have in the past. The smoke mixed with ozone pollution is further degrading air quality.

“What was once a four-month season now lasts six to eight months,” the U.S. Forest Service’s Deb Schweizer wrote in July.

Longer wildfire seasons trace back to the region’s mountains, which are “the water towers of the West,” Mallia explained. They keep the land hydrated during dry stretches of weather. But climate change is creating warmer, drier springs, which means snowpack in the mountains is melting sooner and those towers are draining faster as more than 70% of the West grapples with a historic drought.

The haze choking many parts of the West this summer comes as a new scientific report from the United Nations’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that a hotter future is certain and the region’s vital snowpack will continue to decline.

It describes the devastating impacts of a warming planet that are already playing out and deepening in severity, such as hot extremes, marine heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, intense tropical cyclones, and reductions in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” the report reads. “Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the report is “a code red for humanity" and called for swift action.

"The viability of our societies depends on leaders from government, business and civil society uniting behind policies, actions and investments that will limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Guterres said in a statement. “We owe this to the entire human family, especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities and nations that are the hardest hit despite being least responsible for today’s climate emergency."

Amid the report’s bleak findings, it also describes scenarios centered on curbing carbon emissions that could steer the world away from some calamity.

Keith Gaby of the Environmental Defense Fund is holding onto those threads of hope. He points to legislation before Congress, such as the Senate’s reconciliation package, that would invest in clean energy, create jobs by building electric cars, electric trucks and buses, limit power plant pollution, and invest in other climate solutions.

“We really actually are at a somewhat optimistic time — it sounds funny to say, but we could be turning the corner on this if we get bold policies from Congress and then the rest of the world does the same and moves quickly — in Asia and Europe and elsewhere where they're producing the same pollution.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.