Last winter, on the coldest inversion days, Patrick Wright walked around the Jackson Elementary School parking lot and along the streets near Snow King during the Hill Climb, armed with a handheld sensor.
His mission: to determine if an increasing number of vehicles on Teton County’s roads is degrading the valley’s air quality.
“With the increased volumes of traffic, is there an affect on air quality?” Wright said. “There really was just a lack of consistent air quality measurements previous to this.”
In short: The results were positive. Generally speaking, the air quality in the county is pretty good.
In addition to handheld readings, Wright, of Inversion Labs based in Wilson, also installed sensors at spots like Town Square and the “Y” intersection in the summer. The sensors tracked ozone and particulate matter (the nitrogen dioxide sensor, unfortunately, didn’t work, he said).
Particulate matter can come directly out of a tailpipe, as well as brakes and dust on roads, he said. Ozone is a secondary air pollutant that can result from traffic emissions.
Spikes in the contaminants to potentially unhealthy levels could be attributed to a diesel truck driving right in front of a sensor or a bump in cooking emissions from a restaurant near the sensor, Wright said.
“There is potential for exposure to unhealthy levels of vehicle emissions in very close proximity to the emission sources, like a tailpipe,” Wright said. “Or if you’re spending time around a lot of idling vehicles in really close proximity to them.
“But the overall air quality, even at roadside locations, is really quite good and quite healthy.”
While Teton County roads may seem congested, Wright said, there simply aren’t enough roads or vehicles to inflict serious damage on air quality.
“It seems so crowded to us because our roads are so few and we can’t go anywhere and it’s like gridlock,” he said. “There’s just not enough roads here, even though they’re all jammed up.”
Regional wildfire smoke, the study found, presents the greatest threat to Teton County’s air quality and public health. Smoky conditions in August resulted in the highest particulate concentrations.
The study was funded through a partnership with Teton County Public Health, Jackson Hole Community Pathways, Friends of Pathways, Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities, the Environmental Health Trust, Willie Neal Environmental Awareness Fund, Energy Conservation Works, Wyoming Controls and Shadow Mountain Lighting. A grant also came from Teton Conservation District.
District Director Tom Segerstrom said the study’s value lies in providing baseline information about Jackson Hole air quality. He wasn’t particularly surprised at the positive results.
“The results show that we have very good air quality in general, and what small degradations we have are quickly washed away by our ambient good air quality,” Segerstrom said.
The study was performed in cooperation with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, which has a more sophisticated sensor located on the National Elk Refuge.
When that study is complete, it will provide more insight into the area’s air quality.