Natural Disasters The London Killer Fog of 1952 Part 1

About the London Killer Fog of 1952 a perfect storm of fog, pollution, and smog that covered the city for several days and left a trail of death and destruction in its wake.



London has always had its fog. To anyone who has read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, or seen old English movies, the two go hand in hand. Foggy London presents an aura of romance, adventure, and charm. To most people, English fog is as quaint and harmless as the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. But on several occasions in London's history, fog has turned the city into a foul death trap.

When: Dec. 4 through Dec. 8, 1952.

Where: Greater London.

The Loss: Over 4,000 immediate deaths: thousands more seriously ill or dead from complications.

The Disaster: Although Thursday, Dec. 4, began normally enough, with gray skies and the temperature in the upper 30s, before the day was over, London's teeming millions would experience the most deadly fog in its history. That day, a high-pressure system covered southern Britain, and a thermal-inversion layer--very cold air trapped near the ground by a layer of warmer air--hovered over the Thames River Basin. The temperature plummeted, and during the evening, fog began to form.

Thursday night's unusual cold caused Londoners to heap on the sulfur-rich coal they used to heat their homes. The inversion layer acted like the lid of a pot and prevented the smoke from being dispersed. There was not a single breeze to cleanse London's dirty sky.

By Friday morning London was experiencing a real "pea souper." The thick, polluted air had mingled with the dense fog to create a choking, billowing smog. Visibility was almost nil. Traffic backed up for miles, and some disgusted motorists finally abandoned their vehicles, which in turn made even worse jams. Deliveries were halted in most parts of the city.

Friday also was dead calm. There was no wind, but the temperature remained below freezing and the humidity was uncomfortably high. More poisonous fumes were poured into the sky by the Londoners' coal stoves as they attempted to combat the damp chill. Factories also added their pollutants to the developing mess.

Saturday and Sunday were much the same. London appeared to be trapped under a glass, forced to choke on its own filth and pollution. Most motor traffic was at a dead standstill. There were several train and boat mishaps, and eventually all river traffic was stopped. Walking was difficult too. Lost in the blinding smog, people were wandering onto railroad tracks and into the river. Special police squads patrolled the docks to prevent accidents.

Yet the Londoners continued to "muddle through" with the same aplomb that had carried them through devastating German bombings just a few years before. After all, what possible harm could a fog do other than inconvenience the city for a few days at most? The papers were full of the economic problems caused by the fog--how many millions of pounds were lost every day.

By Monday, though, a few people were making an unsettling discovery. The number of sick and dying seemed to be way above normal. But even this discovery was not taken seriously until after the fog was gone.

By Tuesday the ninth the fog had vanished. The foul, stinging, greenish air was whisked away by a strong wind and forgotten by most Londoners.

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