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Wind, dry, exposed ground contribute to bad air quality

April 20, 2012

Anyone out there with itchy eyes, nose, throat?

Anyone notice that thick white haze to the east where the White Mountains dominate the horizon? For the past several weeks, it’s often been hard to see them at all.

These two things are connected.

They are both due to the fact that spring weather is here and with it, the usual spring winds that whip up newly plowed fields and the dry ground left behind after the snow melts. 

Hence the white haze; a finely ground mixture of dust and pollen and agricultural products. Hence the dry itchy nose and throat and eyes, especially pronounced these last few days for those unlucky humans who suffer from seasonal allergies and/or asthma. According to the regions’ air pollution control district director, Ted Schade, Mammoth has met the state standard for maximum air pollution several times in the past few days; enough pollution to trigger “adverse health impacts” for some people who are susceptible” he said.

It’s a familiar cycle now, one most locals have reluctantly gotten used to. After all, it’s not like the big cities where bad air is a constant. But this year the local phenomenon of wind and hazy skies comes with a twist—or two.

First, it got an early start. The Mammoth high country is normally deep under snow, or at least, still damp from winter moisture. The dry winter has left that ground exposed to strong spring winds much earlier than usual. 

Second, the ground is very, very dry; more like a summer time dry than the usual April soil. So while Mammoth might be used to the April winds, it’s not used to the wind shipping up dust this time of year.

And it looks like things are only going to get worse, barring a wet rainy spring.

The dry winter already has state and local firefighters on edge and ready for action months earlier than usual. In fact, the winter wasn’t that much of a break from fire, as the two big fires in Reno showed.

Now, the backcountry and front country alike are dry, dry, dry. Add to that the fact that last year’s wet winter left a thick carpet of dried grasses and other vegetation on the ground; continuous fodder for fire.

It’s a worrisome combination, Mammoth’s fire chief Brent Harper noted in a recent interview, and quite possibly dangerous. With Mammoth at just 50 percent of normal winter moisture for this time of year, he said the amount of moisture in trees and shrubs is similar to a typical summer.

More fires mean more smoke and that means more air quality problems are likely on the near horizon.

 “It’s just going to be a weird year,” Schade said. 

He also noted that down in his neck of the woods—the Owens Valley—last year’s summer flash floods dropped a lot of debris down from the mountains and onto the Owens Dry Lake. Normally, the winter rains then flush the dust and debris away. 

This year, those rains never came and the stuff is just sitting there in the dry lakebed, waiting for the wind to pick up.

“We’re going to be seeing that whipped around, too,” he said.

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