Smog over London Town

Instead of writing about a recent observation, I would like to take a trip back into the past.

I spent this past Thanksgiving back home in Mt. Pleasant, SC, relaxing with my family. During my stay, I watched a few episodes of Netflix’s The Crown with my parents. It was pretty good. The fourth episode, “Act of God”, really caught my attention. The plot was set around the Great Smog of London. Until then, I had never heard of the event. I decided to do my own research…

Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, December 1952. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Heavy smog in Piccadilly Circus, London, December 1952. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The winter of 1952 had been a very cold one for Britain. The weather had led Londoners to burn much more coal than usual to keep warm. In those post-war days, the domestic coal tended to be a low-quality, sulfurous variety. When burned, it increased the amount of sulphur dioxide in the smoke. Economic reasons required the better “hard” coal to be exported. The domestic smoke, along with the many coal-fired power stations in London (pictured below), created much air pollution. Each day emitted 1,000 metric tonnes of smoke particles, 2,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, 140 tonnes of hydrochloric acid and 14 tonnes of fluorine compounds.

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On December 4, 1952, an anticyclone arrived over London. The effects of anticyclones include cooler, drier air and the formation of fog. The fog was mixed in with the air pollution, forming a nasty smog over the city. Because there was little to no wind, the smog was unable to disperse.

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The smog was extremely dense. In the daylight, there was only a few meters of visibility. It grew even worse by nightfall. “It’s like you were blind” one Londoner described. Most public transportation ceased and the ambulance service was unable to function. Smog seeped into to most buildings. Contemporary medical services estimated that around 4,000 died from effects of the smog. More recent research suggests the fatalities may have actually been around 12,000. After four days, the smog finally dispersed upon changing weather.

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In the aftermath of the Great Smog, much environmental legislation was enacted, including the Clean Air Act of 1956. The Act introduced ‘smoke control areas’ where only smokeless fuels were allowed to burn, as well as shifting domestic sources of heating to cleaner coal, electricity, and gas. It also included measures for relocating power stations away from cities.

smog-136394794286602601The Great Smog of London demonstrates that many environmental phenomena are not just random weather, but rather a combination of weather and human involvement. It also demonstrates the potential danger of reliance on fossil fuels. It is a reminder that we are part of the planetary ecosystem, and that whatever we contribute will come back to affect us.