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Blue Haze Explainer

Blue Mist Meteorology & Chemistry

Wow, what a day on Friday! Both from a weatherman’s and a chemist’s point of view, there was a fascinating tale to be told.

THE METEOROLOGY

A bitter cold morning started out with air temperatures in the single digits in the region with below zero numbers in rural hollows and at Snowshoe. Officially, Charleston registered a low of 7 and as expected Snowshoe came in much colder at -10.

A deep blue arctic sky all day Friday foretold of an air mass that had come straight in from the North Pole. The sun glinted smartly off the early morning snow cover mustering an illuminating snow glare. Hey, we needed sunglasses on a bitter cold winter day. As the snow melted and sublimated, moisture was invisibly added to the air.

By afternoon, barely a breathe of wind blew, rather unusual for a day in late January. The afternoon temperature managed only to rise into the mid 20s in the Kanawha Valley while soaring to 28 at Snowshoe. At least for a few hours, Charleston was colder than Snowshoe despite sitting some 3800 feet lower than the ski resort.

This meteorological phenomenon when colder air is down low and warmer air is up high is known as an inversion. When this occurs, the air close to the ground is not mixed and instead is allowed to collect and stagnate.

THE CHEMISTRY

As we all know, our skies in summer become very hazy during hot days with light winds. The haze is a by-product of moisture in the low atmosphere which meets up with air pollutants. The longer it stays hot with light winds and no rain, the thicker the haze gets.

The pollutants include gas emissions from our cars and fossil fuel emissions from power plants where the burning of coal or oil sends pollution into the air. Nitric and Sulfuric oxides are the most common pollutants that occur in summer.

Now let me take you back to high school chemistry lab. After we performed our normal lab work, I recall my lab partner Mike Corner, the Red Man, and I doing our own experiments. We would mix chemicals and produce a concoction that would make Mr. Frusco angry. We even earned detention once! Well, twice? What we produced were harmless clouds of chemicals that stunk the lab out. Sound familiar?

Last Friday, folks from John Amos Power Plants and the EPA, tell us that normal emissions from coal burning sent the Nitric and Sulfur Oxides into the air as per usual. But given the temperature inversion and light wind regime, a funky blue haze collected over the Kanawha Valley.

As for the blue color, as we know in summer the haze is a yellowish color. The blue seemed out of place. I speculated on First at Five on Friday that the melting and sublimation of snow (sublimation refers to the change of a dry snow to a vapor while skipping the in between melting or liquid phase) added the vapor to the air that was necessary for the haze to grow thick. Add in the chemical concoction discussed and the haze came out blue.

Preliminary fears of a Chlorine leak proved unfounded. In fact, as we reported on our newscasts, Marshall Chemistry Profs Dr. Gray Anderson and Dr. Dan Babb told us that chlorine would have produced a yellow haze.

I will add an e-picture of a similar blue haze from Toronto Canada thanks to Mike Kirk.


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