DENVER (CBS4)– As Colorado’s Front Range sets new heat records, a new study out from National Jewish Health and the Union of Concerned Scientists shows warming in recent decades has sped up the process of ground-level ozone creation. In July, the Front Range missed another federal deadline for meeting national air quality standards for ozone set up back in 2008.
“We found that the ozone climate penalty is significant even though climate change has only been noticeable to most people for the past couple of years,” explained National Jewish researcher Dr. James Crooks. “And indeed we expect it to increase over the next several decades as the climate continues to warm as we keep burning fossil fuels.”
Researchers noted the change in the average summertime high temperature has risen about four degrees since the 1950s.
“In our study we were trying to isolate just the impact of the changing weather on the ozone levels from all other possible impacts including population changes and the changes in the kind of gases we’re emitting and the changes in the industry in the area,” said Crooks.
They dialed back temperatures to 1950s levels to see if estimates of ground-level ozone production would still be consistent. They were not.
“The idea is to say, OK how much less ozone would we have had, under a 1950s climate than we actually have. And that difference is called the ozone climate penalty.”
The study, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, published by Springer Nature, showed that climate warming has sped up the process of ozone production.
Ozone is created at ground level when chemical reactions between volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in sunlight react with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) that are most often human-produced. It is not visible, so the haze people are seeing in Colorado is not ozone, but wildfire smoke and the pollutants that combine with sunlight to make it.
“Feels like it’s 200. And with these helmets on…” explained East High football player Jani Bumphus as the team practiced in City Park in mid-90s heat Thursday.
He slugged down water. But the ozone made it harder.
“Very much, especially if you have asthma,” he said.
Ozone is a lung irritant. It makes things harder for people with problems like asthma or COPD.
Rising heat has also affected many of the things we think we can do in Colorado.
“It definitely has been changing and that’s something we actually pay a lot of attention to too. Especially with the heat is the index, the pollution indexes,” said East High’s Cross Country coach Steve Kohuth. “When that’s really bad, the air quality’s bad we will change workouts, cancel workouts do different things.”
Calculating the cost of rising ozone levels is something the study did not do. But National Jewish has seen an increase in visits due to air quality this summer – although much of that may also be the effects of wildfire smoke.
“We’re having multiple months of the year nowadays with high temperatures, high ozone, high wildfire smoke, sometimes all at the same time,” said Dr. Crooks. “People used to move here for the clean air, and we’re not in that world anymore.”