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Aspen Air Quality

Maroon Bells near Aspen
4 May 2021
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What Does Air Quality Mean?

Air quality measurements determine your level of risk for experiencing negative health effects due to exposure to polluted air. Aspen’s Air Quality Index is generated via local air quality monitoring.

Air Quality Near Aspen

Because of Aspen’s location in a closed-end valley with a low ceiling, the city can sometimes be impacted by inversions that trap pollution at ground level, preventing natural dissipation. External impacts (like regional forest fires) more often influence Aspen’s air during the summer, while wintertime air conditions are influenced by traffic congestion, wood-burning fireplaces and grills from local dining establishments.

That said, numerous studies of Aspen’s air quality over the years have confirmed that our city experiences generally excellent air conditions. Even rare spikes tend to remain better than “moderate” on the air quality scale. Measured levels of pollutants are consistently below the EPA’s “reference concentrations” — levels beyond which one’s health may be threatened.

How Does Aspen Measure Air Quality?

Aspen has a number of air quality sensors in and outside of town which are used to accurately assess local conditions:

  • Sensors on the roof of the North 40 fire station (east and across Highway 82 from the airport) can detect 60 different volatile organic compounds and report findings every 24 hours.
  • Sensors on top of the Yellow Brick building in Aspen’s West End deliver hourly readings for breathable airborne particulate matter (PM-10 and PM-2.5) such as dust, sand, gas, and smoke.
  • An ozone monitoring device on top of the Parks Department offices (at the intersection of Cemetery Lane and Highway 82) is used to measure the main gas component of smog.

Air Pollution Near Aspen

The main sources of measurable air pollution in and around Aspen are generally connected to the airport, the highway, and any recent or ongoing Colorado wildfires, or fires in surrounding states such as Utah or Arizona.

  • Residents in Aspen neighborhoods near the airport tend to complain about odors (and potential associated health effects), which they believe to be related to airport operations and emissions. That said, those odors are usually transient and don’t seem to last very long. Most traces of pollutants have been connected to highway traffic rather than airport-specific operations.
  • A report on Aspen air quality conducted by Fort Collins’ Air Resource Specialists identified vehicular traffic on Highway 82 is “the dominant local source of emissions near the monitoring station.” While you may experience slight pollution near Highway 82 (the main artery through the Roaring Fork Valley from I-70 to Aspen), it’s not difficult to escape to more rural areas to catch your breath.
  • Higher acetone levels have been measured and reported in Aspen’s air during periods of time when the area has been impacted by wildfire smoke from nearby fires. Luckily, wildfire smoke is not a persistent issue.

If Aspen Has Good Air Quality, Why is it So Hard to Breathe?

If you notice it’s difficult to catch your breath when visiting Aspen — and have trouble walking up a flight of stairs, even when you’re fit — you’re most likely experiencing the effects of high altitude, not poor air quality. Air at higher elevation has lower levels of oxygen and lower atmospheric pressure, so your lungs and heart have to work harder to compensate. It’s a natural effect of our altitude here at almost 8,000 feet. So relax and take your time while you’re here!