Smoggy days in Utah hills put damper on Games

Olympics: Ceremonies are set to begin soon, but smog is leaving Salt Lake City in a hazy shade of winter.

Salt Lake 2002

January 11, 2002|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Whither Salt Lake City's snowy mountains?

For three weeks, that's been the question in the host city of the 2002 Winter Olympics, set to begin in less than a month.

A blanket of smog held in place by a temperature inversion has blotted out blue skies and the Wasatch Mountains on the edge of town. During the holiday break, vacationers flying into the airport west of the city could see only the jagged tips of the mountains and not a bit of the metropolitan area.

That's not a good omen for Olympics organizers and NBC producers, who are planning to use the 10,000-foot snowcapped peaks as the signature landmark for the 17 days of athletic competition that begin Feb. 8. When the mountains vanish, so does much of Salt Lake's appeal.

On some recent days, if it weren't for the gigantic, six-spire Mormon Temple in the middle of downtown, visitors might be convinced they're standing in Sheboygan.

How cruel that after spending millions to spruce up the city, civic and political leaders are stuck with a view that visitors complain isn't worth a plugged nickel.

While the current inversion may lift, the worry for Olympics organizers is that the problematic weather phenomenon isn't unusual in these parts. Inversions happen when warm air aloft acts as a lid above the colder air in Salt Lake Valley, creating a stagnant soup pot filled with vehicular and industrial emissions. Even those romantic crackling wood stoves and fireplaces add to the stew.

Inversions happen in other cities at the edge of mountains: Los Angeles, Denver and Albuquerque, N.M. The bad ones in Salt Lake can last three weeks.

How bad? Three years ago, fireworks touched off to ring in the new year were sucked into the muck, their sparkle reduced to a dull glow.

Relief comes when the temperature changes or a snowstorm scours the air. But a large influx of flakes during the Olympics could cause a bigger problem by wreaking havoc on the transportation system and causing the postponement of some competitions, as happened in Nagano in 1998.

"We'd love for things to be perfect, but there's a lot of things we can't control, and weather is one of them," said Kevin Sullivan, NBC vice president of communications. "If the mountains are lost in the fog, so be it. That's what we're going to show them. But as long as you've got the athletes and the competition, you've got the most important things."

If there are weather problems, the network is prepared to show two documentaries: one about the rebuilding of the U.S. skating program after a 1961 airplane crash wiped out the program, and another about the Army 10th Mountain Division and its link to the skiing program, Sullivan said.

"It will be a different look, but you go with what you have," he added.

University of Utah meteorology professor Jim Steenburgh said historically, the worst months for inversions are December and January, with February being a transition month to warmer temperatures when the sun has a chance to burn off the smog.

"It's not out of the realm of possibility that there will be fog for the opening ceremonies," he said.

However, historical weather patterns could go up in the smoke of tailpipes this year.

Transportation blueprints for the Winter Games involve 4,000 borrowed vans and SUVs and nearly 1,000 rented buses to ferry athletes, spectators, officials, volunteers and media around the 10 venues and Olympic Village, an area of about 60 square miles. Thousands of visitors are opting for rental cars.

Still, Olympics organizers and state air-quality officials believe fewer miles will be traveled during the Games than during a normal February, because so many areas will be restricted.

The view isn't any better from on high these days.

On good days, Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, has one of the best views in town from his 13th-floor corner office facing the mountains.

He loves to tell visitors riveted by the view that "we're just using what Mother Nature gave us."

But early this week, the Main Street office tower might as well have been shrouded in an opaque shower curtain.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks made security the Games' No. 1 concern, Romney said poor visibility was one of his top worries.

"A very thick fog inversion would be tough," said Romney, shaking his head and furrowing his brow at the thought. "You might call it an Olympic-sized headache."

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