PULLMAN – With a grant from the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (IDEQ), a group of Washington State University researchers has begun monitoring air quality and atmospheric chemistry in Boise’s Treasure Valley to better understand and mitigate wintertime inversions. The researchers in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, including Tim VanReken, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will be sampling through January.

The project is the first using all the instruments in the LAR’s recently acquired Mobile Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratory. The researchers received an $800,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2007 to develop the lab, a trailer loaded with a suite of instruments, to study the impact of fossil fuel and biological emissions on atmospheric chemistry related to air quality and climate change.

Nearly every winter, a cold, foggy haze descends on Boise. These strong inversions that settle into the Treasure Valley and in other northern, valley cities, such as Salt Lake City and Fairbanks, mean that air doesn’t mix for days on end, and pollutants emitted remain trapped near the ground.

Unlike major cities like Los Angeles or Houston that have their worst pollution problems when temperatures get warm, these wintertime inversions are the worst particulate matter pollution events that Boise has each year. Facing a growing population that could make inversions worse and recent tightening of regulations from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, researchers would like to better understand and eventually mitigate the effects of inversions.

“The causes in Boise are not going to be the same as cities whose pollution is associated with warmer weather, but there will be a lot of similarities,’’ said VanReken. “This data will help us understand other cities as well.’’
While government agencies have monitored pollutants generally enough to know when they have a problem, VanReken’s group will be collecting highly detailed data on specific pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide, ozone and particulate matter.

Working with the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the researchers will then analyze the data to better understand the specific sources of pollution and how those pollutants contribute to the inversion problem. For instance, the researchers will be able to determine the specific contributions of wood stoves, car exhaust or factory emissions. Eventually, regulators will be able to develop a strategy to address the polluting events.