USU Chemist Receives Grant to Study Contaminants in Wasatch Snowpack

Utah State University chemist Jeffrey Perala-Dewey is concerned about particulate pollution blowing across Utah’s Wasatch Front, including dust from the drying Great Salt Lake and pollutants resulting from the Salt Lake City area’s burgeoning growth and energy usage. He wonders how far it’s drifting and settling into surrounding ecosystems.

“As an environmental analytical chemist, my specific concerns are organic contaminants dispersed through air and water, where they’re landing and accumulating, along with their potential environmental effects,” says Perala-Dewey, a Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

The graduate student is one of 12 scholars nationwide awarded a 2019 Research Grant from the Colorado-based American Alpine Club. The charitable organization coordinates an annual grant competition, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Ridgeline Venture Law, the Arthur K. Gilkey Memorial Fund and the Bedayn Research Fund.

Perala-Dewey received $1,500 to support his project, “Climbing with Contaminants: Quantifying Atmospheric Deposition of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) into the Snowpack of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.”

Perala-Dewey conducts research with faculty advisor Kim Hageman, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and with collaborator Janice Brahney, assistant professor in USU’s Department of Watershed Sciences in the Quinney College of Natural Resources.

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With the AAC grant, Perala-Dewey, will benchmark the level of PAH deposition in the mountains, which form Salt Lake City’s eastern bench. Sources of these hydrocarbons includes motor vehicles, industrial burning such as operations at oil refineries, and wood-burning stoves.

“We’ll aim to determine both the magnitude of wintertime alpine contamination, as well as the type of contaminants found in the Wasatch Range,” he says. “This will provide a valuable starting point for further research in the region.”

The results, Perala-Dewey says, may indicate whether or not these contaminants are ecologically significant during spring snow melt.

His research investigates both local and regional atmospheric transport, as well as long-range transport of contaminants beyond Utah’s borders. In fact, Perala-Dewey will study transport all the way to the Alaskan Arctic, as he travels this summer to the North Slope’s Institute of Arctic Biology Field Station, located more than 350 miles north of Fairbanks. The station, one of the National Science Foundation’s Long Term Ecological Research Network sites, lies 117 miles south of the Arctic Ocean.

“It’s important for people to know that contaminants produced by human activities don’t stay in one place,” Perala-Dewey says. “They can spread over long distances, which can become a concern if the contaminants don’t degrade, if they bioaccumulate in bodily tissues and if they’re toxic.”

It’s important, he says, that “we stay ahead of these things.”

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