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Our lost civilization
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If, 10,000 years from now, visiting archeologists wonder just what it was that caused the residents of the soaring culture of the Wasatch Front to suddenly abandon their homes just when the community seemed to be thriving, a simple look around won't do much to explain the riddle.

But if they excavate the archives of the Utah Division of Air Quality, those future explorers of the past will find that the technological success of our region was so incompatible with the natural lay of the land that, eventually, people couldn't live here any more. And so, as with the mysterious abandonments of Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and Troy, a civilization at the peak of its power just ceased to be.

Two maladies — one acute, the other chronic — threaten the future of not only Salt Lake City, but also of human civilization throughout the Southwestern United States. And even though there are panels and reports, it is still far from clear that the larger society fully grasps the situation.

The more acute threat is the one that becomes obvious, if not downright hazardous, to anyone who breathes along the Wasatch Front. In the winter and in the summer, the shape of our landscape and the behavior of our atmosphere traps and bakes airborne pollution to create even more bothersome forms of pollution.

The most troublesome factor is the periodic high concentration of what's called PM2.5, a kind of microscopic soot that comes from auto exhausts and other sources, gets mixed up with other bad chemicals, and makes itself painfully obvious during periods of high atmospheric pressure called inversions.

The DAQ learned recently that its plans to cut down on this kind of pollution are likely to fall well short of a federally imposed standard, and that many tons more of pollutants must be eliminated from the air. And, officials say, most of the easy targets, such as industrial smokestacks, have already been addressed. That means the only other places to look for pollutants not to spill are in individual and household sources, from driving to the use of paint and cleaners.

The greater long-range threat to our region is a climate change so severe that, even in our traditionally arid environment, so much of what we have will dry up and blow away.

More specific and ominous information has been put forward by the congressionally ordered Southwest Climate Assessment. It predicts an era of droughts, wildfires, decaying forests and dwindling water supplies unless the causes of global climate change — which overlap in so many ways with the causes of Wasatch Front air pollution — are addressed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gary Herbert announces Clean Air Month, then drives across the street. And he appoints a committee to study the future of water in Utah, and appoints Division of Water Resources Director Dennis Strong, the most vocal advocate for giant boondoggle water projects and pipelines, to sit on that panel.

We have been warned. But are we listening?

Air and climate demand action
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