Politico misleads readers with smog pic

Is it really that hard to find a photo of manmade smog?

Today’s Politico article “White House looks to curb smog-rule impact” (subscription required) reports on the controversy surrounding EPA’s imminent tightening of the ground-level ozone (i.e.,smog) standard. Accompanying the article is the image, below, of a smoggy/hazy Salt lake City.

Suspicious of the nature of the Associated Press photo, I tracked it down on the AP’s web site. The AP described the photo as follows:

This Jan. 14, 2010 photo shows the historic City and County Building in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah shrouded in smog. The thick layer of smog stubbornly lingering over Utah has fouled the state’s mountain air so badly this week that health officials are warning people not to exercise outside and schools are keeping children inside for recess and sports. The smog is blamed on a weather phenomenon that pins pollution to the valley floors. [Emphasis added]

So the episode really has nothing to do with industrial emissions and would not be prevented by a more stringent EPA ozone standard. Being weather-caused, in fact, this smog event wouldn’t even count against Utah in terms of failing to comply with the ozone standard.

This bogus use of an image reminds us of the time the Washington Post tried to blame a smoggy Beijing on carbon dioxide emissions, which are, of course, invisible. That article earned the Post a spanking by the paper’s Ombudsman (courtesy of JunkScience.com).

5 thoughts on “Politico misleads readers with smog pic”

  1. I live in the Salt Lake Valley and the Inversion stinks when it happens, but the truth is it is not simply ‘our’ emissions that are stuck in the valley it is the emissions from just about everyone west of the Rockies that end up there.

    Heck when California fires are burning you can always tell in the Wasatch Front cause we get their smoke! It has to do with the way the air interacts against the mountains for crying out loud! Is it pleasant, no is it ‘dangerous’ not really, is it part of life that I would get rid of for a lack of cars and industry? NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!!! It happens perhaps a total of one week and a half out of the entire year, shrug.

  2. The term “smog” originally referred to a condition that occurred in London, England and in Donora PA in the late 1940s. A mixture of stack exhaust that had high concentrations of sulfur dioxide and carbonaceous particles mixed with a standard fog. The mixture accelerated oxidation of sulfur dioxide to sulfuric acid. The acid coated particles were hard on lung tissue and many persons died during those episodes. The word itself was a compilation of the words smoke and fog.

    When the precursors to EPA figured out what was causing the brownish haze in Los Angeles they began calling it photochemical Smog for want of a better name. It is not descriptive of what is going on since LA is normally dry so there is no fog, the emissions are not smokey, and sulfur dioxide is not involved.

  3. ‘Temperature inversions’ can happen almost anywhere. It means that warmer air is trapped below colder air, and (usually for reasons of humidity) prevented from participating in convective mixing. I have seen it in California, Colorado, Texas, and Virginia. It is usually a short-term condition and disperses with a shifting of the wind direction or the arrival of a different air mass. Until it is dispersed exhaust gases accumulate.
    FWIW, the EPA defines ‘smog’ in terms of ozone, ignoring other chemicals, only because it makes their work much simpler. Some things like sulfur and nitrogen oxides are complex and hard to measure directly, and others like VOCs and particulates are variable across a region or are dependent on local vegetation, etc.

  4. We do get a few nasty inversions every year in the SL Valley. Yesterday was pretty soupy, but industrial emissions are unlikely candidates. We are downwind of China and LA, as it were.

  5. The natives that lived in the Los Angeles and Riverside County areas hundreds of years ago, used to call this region the “Smokey Valley” before any industry existed in it. The natural weather inversions cause the marine layer to hang low over the area, especially during the Summer months. This atmospheric phenomena continues to this day. It sometimes has a rusty tint due to earth dust mixing in it from windy conditions.

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