People are flocking to Colorado for the great outdoors, but air pollution is leading to more days when residents are stuck inside

Colorado's mild winters, abundant open space and endless outdoor recreation opportunities make it easy to see why it is one of the most rapidly-growing states in the US.
Ashley O'Connor, a Chicagoan who moved to Colorado in 2015, said that she was tired of spending nine months indoors without any sun. "We joke that we traded skyscrapers in exchange for mountains.

O'Connor and her husband are not the only ones who have a love for each other. According to census data, Colorado was the fastest-growing state from 2010 to 2020, doubling its population by almost 15%. Colorado real estate is also booming and has seen an even greater increase during the pandemic. This was because urbanites moved to smaller cities.

However, the state's most important draw is its access to the outdoors.

Colorado's air is becoming more polluted. This means that Colorado's mountains are obscured by haze and it's getting harder to get outside.

Frank Flocke, a scientist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado told Insider that three of the four days in the past three months were air quality alerts. He said this in mid-September. "We had a clear day, the first in weeks, when you could actually see mountains.

On Tuesday, August 3, 2021, a hazy view of downtown Denver from Sloan Lake, Denver, Colorado. Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Photos

According to Flocke, ozone pollution and wildfire smoking are major factors in the blurring of the Rocky Mountains. This is becoming a more common sight in Colorado.

The 41-day period of air quality warnings that Colorado officials issued this summer was marked by an ozone alert. From June to August, 65 ozone alerts were issued by the state. This is more than any other year since 2016, when current ozone standards were established.

"Hazy, smoky mountain ranges are a common sight"

Long-term residents are aware of the changes in the air quality and their impact on outdoor living.

Susanna Joy, a Colorado native, said that it was heartbreaking. "Those of us who are from this area have seen a big shift in our ability and enjoyment of life as we grew up."

Joy stated that she was raised outdoors and is still an avid hiker. She also loves being outdoors as much as she can. Joy said that air quality and wildfires were not on her radar growing-up, which is a marked difference from recent years.

Joy stated, "I didn't think about air quality when planning outdoor adventures. Now it's something we look at constantly."

Susanna Joy (@susannagans), shared this post.

She now receives an email from her local newspaper every morning that informs her about the air quality that day. This allows her to decide whether or not she wants to go outside.

She said, "There have been many times when we were planning to ride a 40-mile bicycle ride but the air quality was too poor or too hot."

Coloradoans have made it a part of their daily lives to check on the air quality. The air quality index (or AQI) is a tool that government agencies use to inform the public about how safe the air is. It is used to communicate to the public how safe it is on any given day.

O'Connor, a recent transplant, says that even for those who have been there recently, the changes are palpable. O'Connor lives in Summit County in the Rockies, where O'Connor can see the state's top ski resorts like Breckenridge, Keystone, and Keystone.

O'Connor stated that being outside is not just about having hobbies. It's a way of living. She enjoys to bike, ski, ride her sailboat, and hike the numerous trails that are just minutes from her home.

She said that the "hazy, smokey mountain ranges have been a bit of an everyday sight since we moved here" It has also affected how much time we spend outside.

O'Connor stated that her husband and she wake up with red, burning, itchy eyes and congestion from poor air quality.

On Sept. 10, 2021 in Colorado, the sun sets behind Rocky Mountains. This is because smoke from wildfires in the west has filtered into the area to create beautiful sunsets and sunrises, and trigger air quality alarms. David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The culprits: "A product of our own making"

According to Flocke, Ozone is the main pollutant that has a negative impact on Colorado's atmosphere.

Colorado is home to some of the most severe ozone pollution in the United States. The Denver area was reclassified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a "serious" violation of federal air quality standards in 2019. The state was given until July by the agency to control ozone pollution, but the deadline passed.

Ozone can be found in Earth's atmosphere as both a naturally occurring gas and a man-made gas. Ozone at high altitudes, such as the ozone layer above, helps protect the planet from UV rays. Ground-level ozone is produced by chemical plants and cars and enters the atmosphere.

Flocke stated that ozone pollution was "mainly a result of our own doing," and called transportation of people, goods, and oil and gas the "elephants" in the room when it comes to reducing ozone emission.

Flocke co-authored a 2019 study that found transportation and fossil fuel sectors were major contributors to the ozone in Colorado's front range.

This Jan. 7, 2018 photo shows traffic backing up on Interstate 70 in Colorado. It is a familiar scene along the main highway linking Denver and the mountains. Thomas Peipert/Associated Press

Millions of Colorado transplants haven't helped the problem. The increase in traffic and population only makes the emissions worse.

According to the EPA, breathing in ozone can cause serious health problems, such as coughing, throat irritation and chest pain. Long-term issues, like decreased lung function, may also be caused by it. Strong evidence also supports the connection between higher levels of ozone and asthma attacks, greater hospitalizations, as well as increased mortality.

High ozone levels can cause symptoms even in people who aren’t at greater risk.

"The fires make it worse"

These impacts are magnified by fine particulate matter (from wildfires) which is another pollutant that permeates Colorado's atmosphere. PM, also known as particulate matter or PM, is a term that refers to small particles in the air that can be inhaled by breathing.

Flocke stated that fires can make things worse by adding particles to the ozone.

According to the EPA, particles from wildfires can penetrate the lungs and bloodstream. Studies have shown that PM can cause premature death in patients with heart disease or lung disease, heart attacks and decreased lung function.

Even though Colorado experiences a mild wildfire season like this year's, it still has to deal with dangerous levels PM from other parts West. California and Oregon fires brought smokey days to Colorado this year.

On August 26, 2020, Glenwood Canyon and Interstate 70 were blanketed by smoke from the Grizzly creek Fire in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Alex Edelman/Getty Images

Flocke stated that there were many days when ozone exceeded the standard and particulates exceeded the standard. People who are sensitive to pollutant pollution will find it difficult to enjoy the outdoors and live a full life.

Flocke stated that the problem is made worse by the fact the same meteorological conditions that keep the local ozone from getting flushed out with cold fronts are also the conditions that bring in wildfire smoke from coastal areas.

"If we address the climate problem, then we will gradually tackle our air quality problem."

Russ Schumacher is the director of Colorado Climate Center at Colorado State University. He says that wildfires will continue to have an impact on Colorado's air quality as long as the climate continues warming.

Insider was told by a man who said that many studies dating back to 10 to 15 years have shown that wildfires will increase in West. "We are beginning to see this now."

Schumacher stated that wildfires don't just result from climate change. He also said that climate change has caused droughts and heatwaves, which have created the conditions for large-scale fires.

According to Flocke, climate change and air quality are "intimately linked".

Denver Skyline seen from Cherry Creek Dam Road in Denver, Colorado. This was taken on a clear day in 2015. Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post/Getty Images

He said that both crises can be solved in Colorado by taking many of the same steps. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, tighter regulations for oil and gas emissions, improved public transportation and disincentivizing driving could all be done.

Flocke stated that if we address the climate problem, then we will gradually tackle our air quality problem." He added that while the solutions are clear, there must be political will to implement them.

He stated that the increased awareness of air quality due to climate change and wildfires could lead to a stronger push for change. It could also have a positive effect on the state's air quality due to the many transplants.

He said, "People move to Colorado for the idea of clean mountain air." "Maybe they'll be more open to accepting stricter regulations."

Joy shared those sentiments and said she hopes that it's not just summer now. She added, "I enjoyed summer so much when I was a child."

She said that while she personally works to reduce her emissions, she is also trying to accept the fact that it won't change until she makes big changes to help decrease the overall impact. It will continue to grow."

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