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Anyone who has lived through a Salt Lake Valley winter can tell what it's like to be stuck in nasty inversions, those periods when pollution gets trapped in the cold basin air and leaves eyes stinging and lungs tight.

But a group of scientists, students and volunteers have taken the experience to a whole new level. As part of their three-year, $1.3 million study of inversions, they dug in, even deploying a glider pilot equipped with weather instruments to peer into the heart of the problem.

The glider data are just one set of the data that will help the team better understand inversions, which scientists call "cold pools." Although the findings won't solve the air-pollution problem, someday the findings may help improve how we deal with it, said University of Utah atmospheric sciences professor John Horel, one of the study's principal investigators.

A solution might "require additional regulation on industry and the public," he said in a news release. "What we're doing is improving the kinds of information that might eventually be available to decision-makers."

The study, funded with a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant, involved the U., along with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Michigan State University.

For a two-month period ending last week, team members — about 50 people in all — collected data gathered by 150 weather balloons and a smattering of continuous-read monitors that took key measurements. Their work covered 10 inversions during Utah's high-pollution period, December to February.

"We get pretty exhausted launching weather balloons and driving mobile weather stations at all hours of day and night, but it has been a great opportunity to test our understanding of what causes the development and breakup of pollutant-trapping inversions" said Erik Crosman, a graduate student in the U.'s department of atmospheric sciences, in a news release.

"We've been collecting data around the clock during some of these episodes, which have lasted as long as 10 days."

The next two years, said Horel, the researchers will analyze the data. "It's millions of observations we're looking at."

They looked at the role that the Great Salt Lake plays in preventing inversions from busting up, as well as how cold air sometimes pours down into the valley from the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountainsides and the impact of winds currents from the south end of the valley.

The findings, once they are analyzed and presented in scientific papers, might someday offer insights about urban inversions worldwide, including those seen in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Mexico City, Horel said.

"Unfortunately," he added, "one of the advantages of studying them in Salt Lake City is just how frequently they occur here."

To learn more about the inversion study:

O See the blog or the project's web page. Links to both can be found at