London’s Great Smog of 1952

By | November 23, 2018

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Big Ben mostly obscured by smog

December 5, 1952, was a chilly one in London, prompting residents to warm their homes by lighting their coal fireplaces and unknowingly contributing to a catastrophe that would kill thousands. The event only lasted five days, but it delivered a death toll of more than four thousand. Some researchers have estimated the number to be as high as twelve thousand.

What the unsuspecting Londoners didn’t know was that the cold that day was caused by an anticyclone poised over the city pushing air downwards and causing a temperature inversion, which is an upper layer of warm air trapping cold air at the ground level. Unfortunately, the smoke from the chimneys as well as emissions from factories and automobiles were also trapped. With no wind to disperse the smoke, what began as an ordinary fog quickly became a thirty-mile-wide mass of smog, nicknamed “pea-souper” due to its yellowish-brown color. Nightfall on December 5 only served to increase the smog and the morning sun was unable to burn it away. The same thing happened on the next two nights, causing the situation to grow even more dangerous.  

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Police Officer uses flare to direct traffic

Visibility became extremely limited, shutting down public transportation. Flights were grounded and train routes were canceled, with only the London Underground remaining operational. Even boats were forced to dock due to limited visibility. Conductors had to walk in front of the buses which continued to run and guide them down the streets. Residents were urged to stay indoors and those who chose to venture out risked becoming lost in the dense fog. Drivers struggled to see as their headlights failed to penetrate the smog and they were eventually forced to abandon their vehicles in the middle of the road. However, those who decided to complete their journeys on foot did not fare much better.