Lesson #321: The Great Smog of ’52

I’d like to start today’s lesson with someone totally unrelated to what will follow, but that made me laugh. In the course of an email thread between my parents and me yesterday, my dad brought up the Fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia, which they took me and my brother to whilst on holiday in the Maritimes the summer I was 14.* I suggested that I’d need to read up on it because I had no memory of what he was talking about, to which my mother responded with this gem:

“Louisbourg: the French said to themselves, the back of our fort, from whence we get our fresh water is a swamp/ wetland. No one would be so foolish as to attack from that direction when we have such formidable water facing defenses. Well, gee, they forgot about the New Englanders who live in swamps/wetlands and have no trouble slogging through them, especially when there is a nice juicy fort to be had. Block the French’s access to their fresh water supply and it’s not long until they will consider a discussion about change of command. Turns out the English didn’t see too much advantage in holding the fort so eventually turned it back to the French. Some time later, it became a strategic position again so the English did exactly the same thing and came through the *still* undefended back door.”

Well told, Mom.

And now, on to today’s lesson. 

The beauty of the internet is random links allow you to find out all sorts of things you might never otherwise have learned because there are so many layers to peel back before you’d get to it in a book — by way, no doubt , of five others. Today, I was playing about on the Met Office’s website (see my very first post on the Shipping Forecast) and through a series of clicks came across the Great Smog of ’52.

On the evening of 5 December 1952, a heavy smog rolled in on London and spent the next three days wreaking havoc, made 100,000 people sick, and asphyxiated at least 4,000 people (a study published in the January 2004 edition of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests the number is closer to 12,000) and some cattle. In some places, the fog was so thick that people couldn’t see their own feet, which, as you can imagine, made it very difficult to navigate streets even when people were in familiar areas.

All of this came about because of a chain reaction of factors. It had been a cold, snowy November/Early December,** and as a result, people had been burning coal in their fireplaces a whole lot more than usual. All of this coal burning caused an accumulation of smog that the low winter sun — and let’s be honest, the UK isn’t exactly known for its sunshine — wasn’t able to burn off. So now you’ve got a heavy smog that hasn’t been dissipated during the day and the not-insignificant population of London adding to the problem because it’s still very cold. Add to this a perfect storm, as it were, of meteorological conditions that I don’t exactly understand. And then add the pollution from industrial areas on the continent that the wind has blown over the city. And then the sun rises and fails to burn it off and the factories keep working and the wind keeps blowing and the sun sets and the citizens of London light their fires to keep warm and a vicious cycle ensues for a few days.

Needless to say, this brought air, rail, and bus travel to a complete standstill. Theatre and opera performances were called off when the fog moved into the theatres. But really, the way you know something is serious in England? Football matches were cancelled.

More can be read here and here. For a retrospective from The Guardian, including full articles reported at the time, see here. Photographs — which are actually pretty stunning — here.

*I give my parents a lot of (fake) crap about the fact that they’re terrible parents because they never took me to Saskatoon — to this day, I’ve not been to Saskatchewan — but they did take us to a lot of cool places and made sure that we were exposed to a lot of interesting learning-type things.

**And if you’ve ever spent a significant amount of time in the UK in winter, you know that heavy snow isn’t particularly common and therefore results in all manner of chaos wherein everyone reacts as if they’ve never seen snow before and have no idea what to do.

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Lesson #275: It’s HOT!

Two piece of business before we get started: 1. My Norwegian friend who works in the building in Oslo that was bombed yesterday is, it turns out, still on holiday in Greece. I have never been happier to hear that someone wasn’t home. 2. A friend and I had our plans to watch the first TriNations rugby match at the pub at 6 this morning foiled on account of the fact that it’s not showing at all on American TV. Undeterred by this, we still decided to have a pint of Guinness.

It is very hot where I live right now. Yesterday, it got up to 104 with a humidex of 126. It’s so unbearably hot in my house (it was 92 downstairs the last time I looked at the thermostat…it’s at least another 5 degrees hotter upstairs) that I have been spending most of my time at home in my bedroom, which is the only air conditioned room in the house. I have eaten up nearly everything I have in the house that doesn’t need to be heated up because there’s not a chance I’m turning on the element/stove. Tomorrow’s Copa America final? Will be watched in a bar with air conditioning.

All this brought me to wondering what the most extreme temperatures have been, worldwide.

The highest temperature ever recorded in Canada: 113 (45) in Midale and Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan on 5 July, 1937.

The highest temperature ever recorded in the US: 134 (57) in Death Valley, California on 10 July, 1913

The highest temperature ever recorded in the world: 136 (58) in El Azizia, Libya on 13 September, 1922

and just because it made me laugh…

The highest temperature ever recorded at the South Pole: 7.5 (-14) at the South Pole on 27 December, 1978*

To compare…

The record high for the city I live in is 107 (42) — a temperature I experienced a few times every summer (though without a humidex, so it actually felt like 107, and I had air conditioning then) when I lived in a southern state — and the low is only -7 (-22) — a temperature I experienced fairly regularly every winter when I lived in a northern state.**

*All of that information is here.

**I’m not actually going to tell you which city this is, but if you care enough and do some digging on the Weather Channel’s website, you should be able to find it!

Lesson #240: Predicting the Weather

I have a friend who is a meteorological physicist (more interesting than it sounds) who studies storm cells (see?). Most of the physics I know I’ve learned from him and my favourite Russian. When he was finishing up his thesis, he sent it to me to proof it, so I learned a whole bunch about the Butterfly Effect and its application as regards the formation and movement of storms.

So, I deal in the high concept, not the practical when it comes to my physics.* No basic Newton for me; I’m headed straight for quantum entanglement. But, despite my understanding of the formation and progression of storm cells, I have no practical meteorological skills. Until today, when I stumbled on this awesome webpage that gives me all sorts of information about how to predict weather patterns based on: wind, clouds, the moon, the colour of the sky**, water, animals and plants.

*Which you know if you’ve been reading with any sort of regularity.

**I actually knew the application of the red sky meteorology, which makes sense given that I have seen every episode of ‘Deadliest Catch’ since it was just a three part mini-series back in 2004 and how much maritime material I read. Whatever, I have a schizophrenic library, deal with it. And honestly, given that my very first post was about how obsessed I am with the Shipping Report (don’t think I don’t still listen to it…it’s very soothing), this should surprise exactly no one.

Lesson #226: Fire Tornadoes

I have randomly come across about five different sites talking about fire tornadoes in the last week. Apparently, there was one in Brazil earlier this week.

Fire tornadoes, also known as fire devils or fire whirls, occur when a strong wind whips a brush fire into a whirlwind. They are typically 30-200 feet (10-50m) tall and a few metres wide and last only a few minutes. The largest fire tornadoes can be half a mile high with winds of 100 miles per hour and can last up to 20 minutes.*

In 1923, the combination of the fires from the great Kanto earthquake and the high winds from a developing typhoon resulted  in a fire tornado that killed 38,000 people in 15 minutes.

*More information here.

Lesson #25: Freezing Fog

I spent last night at London Gatwick.

We were delayed leaving Budapest because of the weather in London, which I had hoped would translate to a delay in my connecting flight, but the connecting flight was cancelled due to freezing fog at my final destination.

In other news, freezing fog is a thing.

According to the BBC’s Weather Centre, freezing fog is “composed of supercooled water droplets (i.e. ones which remain liquid even though the temperature is below freezing-point). One of the characteristics of freezing fog is that rime – composed of feathery ice crystals – is deposited on the windward side of vertical surfaces such as lamp-posts, fence-posts, overhead wires, pylons and transmitting masts.”

So yeah, I’m cool with spending the night in the airport when that’s the case.

Lesson #1: The Shipping Forecast

I was putzing around on the BBC Radio webpage this evening because its player volume control goes to 11 (yes!) and I noticed there’s such a thing as a shipping forecast, so I thought I’d listen to it and see what it said.

Here’s what I got: Southerly 4 or 5 becoming variable 3 or 4, moderate or rough decreasing slight or moderate, mainly fair, moderate or good.

Here’s what I understood: Southerly.

Here’s what I learned in my follow-up research: the report breaks down into layman’s terms as, “southerly winds at Beaufort force 4 (moderate breeze) or 5 (fresh breeze) changing direction at a force of 3 (gentle breeze) or 4, seas moderate (1.25 – 2.5 m) or rough (2.5 – 4 m) decreasing to slight (0.5 – 1.25 m) or moderate, weather mainly fair, visibility moderate (2-5 nautical miles) or good (over 5 nautical miles).

Other notes: If winds veer, they shift in a clockwise direction, if they are backing, they’re moving counterclockwise.

The areas sometimes have fun names like Viking (off the coast of Norway).

The Beaufort force scale has 12 levels, the highest being hurricane force.

Here’s all the terminology except for the one I most want to know the meaning of, which is “losing its identity.