Data Dump: I can see clearly now...?

As coal goes down, air quality goes up (but challenges remain)

I know. I should have focused on the monuments, not the tumbleweeds, or at least tried to increase depth of field. Still, even with the background blurred, the details on the monuments are visible from sixty miles away in this March 2020 photo.

About a year ago, just before handshakes and hugs had gone extinct, I interviewed a man who had lived in Farmington, New Mexico, for nearly seven decades. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he and his family often drove up the La Plata River, into Colorado, and up into the La Plata Mountains. He said that from up there he could see all the way to the Sandia Mountains, some 200 miles away. 

I didn’t really believe him because I was unable to wrap my mind around the concept. After all, I’ve sat on many a high-point in the Four Corners and gazed out over the landscape over the decades, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never been able to see anything that far away. It’s a decent day when I can make out the dim outline from Shiprock from just 60 miles away.

That’s because for as long as I’ve been alive, a fleet of massive coal-fired power plants has churned haze-producing pollutants into the region’s air, harming humans and the ecology and blotting out vistas from the San Juans to the Sandias. And although I’m intellectually aware of the fact that the air was quite clearer in those pre-power-plant days, on another level I’ve come to accept the omnipresent smog as just the way things are. The sullying of the air has gone on for so long that it’s become normalized. 

This normalized degradation is not limited to the air. The seemingly pristine Animas River was degraded long before the Gold King Mine blew out and rendered that degradation blatantly visible. Most of the public lands in the West have been overgrazed for so many years that few people can even imagine the belly-high grasses that once covered the slopes of desert mountain ranges—let alone the grizzlies and wolves that roamed there. It’s only when we stumble upon one of those increasingly rare places where humans and their bulldozers and livestock haven’t reached—the top of a small, steep-sided mesa, perhaps—that the blinders are removed and we realize that things were once better and maybe can be again one day. 

And so it was that about a week after I had interviewed the Farmington man, as I drove along a potholed road on a sage-covered plateau in southeastern Utah, that I looked out the windshield and was shocked to see, 60 miles distant, the details on the faces of Monument Valley’s iconic formations. 

Initially I assumed that the clarity was the short-lived result of the storm that had battered my little tent the night before. But the air was equally clear a couple weeks later when, from my perch upon Comb Ridge, I could see the rock-bands of Dibé Bitsaa, or Hesperus Peak, in the La Plata Mountains, nearly 90 miles away. Later I asked my aunt Charlotte about it. She has lived in southwestern Colorado her whole life and has been looking at the landscape for just as long. She confirmed it: The air does seem to be getting clearer and the vistas greater.

One reason for this re-found clarity is the closure, in December 2019, of the Navajo Generating Station. Up until then, the plant’s towering smokestacks had spewed tens of thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and other health-harming and smog-forming materials into the air each year. Halting that naturally helps air quality.

But a look at the data from regional air quality monitors suggests that the air gradually has been clearing for at least a decade. Unfortunately, the air monitors are too few and far between to draw any strong conclusions as to why. Installation of air-pollution controls and the shutdown of units at the Four Corners and San Juan power plants in northwestern New Mexico may have helped, along with the drastic decline in natural gas drilling beginning in 2009. 

Whatever the reasons, the clearer air shows us that things can get better, and that degradation is not normal, nor should we accept it as such. It’s never too late to clean up the air and water or to heal the land. Yet the climate—which humans have also degraded—is a different matter. While the baseline air quality over the Colorado Plateau is improving, the mid-summer skies in recent years have been filled with various levels of smoke emanating from wildfires near and far. And the aridification of the Southwest has led to more and bigger dust events that turn the air thick and orange-brown each spring, reducing visibility and coating the mountain-snow with an albedo-depleting layer of muck. It’s a cruel sort of irony: Even as the demise of coal results in cleaner air, the long-term effects of coal-burning are dirtying it again.

But for now, we should celebrate the gains by going up on a sage-strewn mesa and just looking toward the horizon, relishing what we can see and knowing that the people of the Plateau are inhaling less nastiness, at last. And I’m holding out hope that one day I’ll be able to stand high in the La Plata Mountains and see all the way to the Sandias. 

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And with that, the weekly Data Dump (which really lives up to its name, this time):

EPA air quality monitors are few and far between, but the ones in San Juan County, New Mexico, home to two giant coal-fired power plants, seems to have some of the most complete information. This chart, for all pollutants, clearly shows an improvement in winter and fall air quality, with lesser improvements in spring and summer.
The EPA doesn’t have any air quality monitors near the now-closed Navajo Generating Station, but it does have a couple on the rim of the Grand Canyon. And it would appear that the closure of NGS in Dec. 2019 had a positive impact on air quality over the canyon.
Visibility is gradually improving, particularly on the clearest days, at Mesa Verde National Park, which is just 30 miles away from Four Corners and San Juan power plants. Unfortunately the visibility graph only goes to the end of 2019, so any effects of the Navajo Generating Station shutdown don’t show up.
Big dust events show up clearly in February and March of 2019. Dust (shown here as soil) can reduce visibility significantly during the spring and then coat the mountain snowpack. That reduces albedo—or reflectivity—of the snow, causing it to melt and evaporate faster.
This air quality map, showing moderate (yellow) to hazardous levels of particulate matter and ozone is from Aug. 21, 2020. It is essentially a map of wildfire smoke, which has been more and more prevalent over the entire region in recent years.
Compare the (lack of) clarity of Monument Valley in this photo—from Lime Ridge, about 30 miles from the features—to the opening shot. This one, of Land Desk-jockey Jonathan with daughter Lydia, was taken in 1999 or perhaps early 2000.