The Great London Smog of 1952

I have to admit, I had never heard of ‘The Great London Smog’ event until I watched The Crown on Netflix, and an entire episode was dedicated to this event (It’s Season 1, Episode 4, if anyone is interested). The episode was well-done, and dove into some of the politics surrounding the event and also told some harrowing personal stories. As a meteorologist and a reader of history, I was interested to learn more about how this event unfolded.

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The Great London Smog event occurred over a period of five days in early December 1952. Although London was historically known as a city of poor air quality since even before the industrial revolution began, this event was historic in its magnitude. The UK Met Office (the equivalent of our National Weather Service) notes that the Smog was preceded by a period of abnormally cold weather, which resulted in people burning extra coal in their homes to stay warm. Smog forms when particulate matter and chemicals in the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel burning mix with air and water and turn acidic. When high pressure is present, the concentration of chemicals near the surface increases because there is little wind and vertical motions in the atmosphere to disperse them. Smog not only affects visibility, but creates poor air quality which is a health hazard for anyone with respiratory issues.

The smog began to form overnight on December 5, and persisted through December 9. During the smog, at least 4000 people were known to have died as a direct result of the poor air conditions, and countless more suffered from poor breathing. Visibility was near zero, rendering travel nearly impossible. It is estimated that thousands more died in the coming months and years as a result of the smog, as increased incidences of bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as higher than normal death rates, were recorded long after the event ended. Some estimates place the final death toll over 12,000 people.

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In the series The Crown, the episode explores whether or not Prime Minister Winston Churchill heeded the advice of scientists, and whether the many casualties could have been prevented. The British Parliament conducted an investigation afterward, and in 1956 passed the Clean Air Act, which restricted burning of coal in urban areas and provided grants to homeowners to convert to cleaner home heating systems. Due to the grace period allowed to achieve compliance with the new regulation, another smog event resulted in 750 deaths in 1962.

Author Kate Winkler Dawson explores the Great London Smog in her book, “Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. The book tells the story of the smog event and another saga unfolding at the same time; the ongoing search for a serial killer (John Reginald Christie) who was terrorizing Londoners at the same time. While I have not read the book yet, it may be added to my summer reading list.

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