December 5 – Up in Big Smoke

Today’s factismal: A dense blanket of smog descended on London on December 5, 1952, and stayed there for four days. By the time it left, it had killed at least 4,000 people.

John Carpenter once made a scary movie about a fog that envelops people and drives them mad. Little did he know that his art was imitating real life! In late November of 1952, London was gripped by a cold wave, forcing many to burn extra coal to keep warm. In addition, the many coal-fired power plants in the London area were going full blast, trying to keep up with the increased demand for electricity. Normally, the smoke created by the fireplaces and power plants would have just blown out to sea and out of mind. But this time, something else would intervene.

Just as November changed to December, a high pressure zone moved over London and settled in to stay. This created a temperature inversion. Normally, the air temperature goes down with altitude. But in an inversion, it goes up. This means that the smoke could only rise so far before being trapped against the warmer air above. In effect, London was under a giant dome with no way to get clean air. The final ingredient needed to make this a perfect anti-storm was the fog that soon developed below the inversion layer. The fog mixed with the smoke to form a noxious smog, rich in carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide and poor in oxygen.It created what Londoners soon called “the Big Smoke”.

The smog soon became so thick that it soon became impossible to see more than a few yards away. Movie houses and restaurants closed because it was impossible for the audience to see the screen or the waiter to find the tables! All surface traffic – including emergency vehicles such as ambulances – was stopped, with only the London underground left as public transport. If you got ill, you had to find your own way to the hospital. And get sick they did, by the thousands. More than 100,000 people were made ill by the Big Smoke, and at least 4,000 people died. Most of those who died were either very old or very young or suffered from breathing problems such as asthma or emphysema. And later reviews of the death rates during the Big Smoke suggest that the actual toll may have been as high as 12,000 deaths!

Fortunately, the Big Smoke lasted just a few days. By December 9, the inversion layer had moved off of London and the Big Smoke was nothing more than a bad memory and a cause for action. England quickly passed a clean air bill that paid homeowners to convert their coal fireplaces to natural gas and that forced power plants to install pollution reduction controls. Thanks to the cleaned-up environment, London has seen just one other Big Smoke since then (in 1962, before all of the controls were in place).

Of course, London isn’t the only place that has an environment or pollution or people willing to work to preserve the former and get rid of the latter. And, as you might guess, there are plenty of citizen science opportunities working with the environment. One of my favorites is Envrionmentors by the National Council for Science and the Environment. This program matches trained scientists with young adult leaders (read: teenagers) and provides them with the tools that they need to go out and do environmental science in their communities. The projects are eligible for an annual science fair where the winner is given a $10,000 college scholarship! If you’d like to be a mentor or know someone who needs to be a mentee, then head on over to:
http://www.ncseonline.org/program/environmentors

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