Great Stink and Killer Fog
Snowdrops! Sandhill cranes! The iciest winter in my memory is yielding to one of the earliest springs.
Climate change is real. So is normal variation over time. Europe’s “little ice age” contributed to the end of the Viking era and the population decline of the 1300s, even before the arrival of the plague. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s account of The Long Winter of 1880-81 haunted me, as a child, with the fragility of life without reliable furnace or groceries. Human and natural causes interacted to produce two of my favorite meteorological crises in English history (to study, not to wish on anyone): London’s Great Stink and Killer Fog.
In July and August of 1858, an intense heat wave caused the uncontrolled sewage in the River Thames to simmer and stew. The resulting stench brought the city to a standstill. In the new Parliament building on the riverbank, members with handkerchiefs over their noses met in the rooms farthest from the river to debate a response. The resulting system of sewers, fresh water, and embankments lowered the death toll from cholera almost immediately. That system is still in use today.
In December of 1952, unusually cold temperatures led Londoners to burn coal at record rates. The air filled with sulfur dioxide. Five windless days of temperature inversion (low air colder than the air above it) trapped the pollutants at ground level. Lack of visibility stopped ambulance services and other transportation except the subways. Movie theaters closed because viewers could not see the screen. The toxic smog killed at least four thousand people. It moved Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act of 1956, which promoted conversion from coal to gas, oil, and electricity.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.