Geography is often said to supply the ‘where’ bit of the set of questions ‘how, what, where and why?’ This blog views geography much as another environmental geography blogger does (http://environmentalgeography.blogspot.com/). In this blog geography asks the questions – where is it, why there and so what? This blog adds a bit more. Geography asks what is it, where is it and why there and not somewhere else and then so what? Geography looks at both the static questions of what and where as well as the more dynamic questions about why and so what. By combining these, the static and the dynamic, you get an understanding of not only what is going on but also why.
OK so in English what does that mean? Take a pollution incident. The first question is what is it? What is the pollutant? The next question is where is it? Which bit of the environment is it in and is that important? A release of sulphur dioxide from coal fires would produce a stream of gas in an urban area. Where it is important as the sulphur dioxide could affect human health if concentrations rose high enough. Likewise if a specific meteorological condition occurred, such as a blocking high pressure system, then smoke and sulphur dioxide could remain in the urban area and concentrations build up to such an extent that some people have difficulty breathing whilst others collapse and die. This is not a random example as Londoner over 60 would know. The Great Smog or Big Smoke of Friday 5th to Tuesday 9th December 1952 was the result of the interaction and coincidence of large releases of smoke and sulphur dioxide from low quality coal from power stations and domestic fires and the presence of an anticyclone over London from 4th December. The resulting temperature inversion over London effectively trapped the pollution.
Figure 1: Nelson's coloumn nearly hidden in the Great Smog
The last question is why there and not somewhere else. Pollution wasn’t uncommon in 1950s London. Low quality coal, cheap fuel in post-war Britian, had been used before; power stations were not new inventions. Likewise, anticyclones are not an unusually weather phenomenon. So the question is why there and why then? The preceding days had been cold; more coal was being burnt than usual. Diesel fumes added to the usual mix as relatively new buses took over from the recently defunct tram system. Mix in the pollution from industrial Europe that had blown across the Channel in the days before and the amount of pollution was higher than usual and not a breathe of wind to disturb the stillness of the brown shroud of pollution and all the elements come together to explain the why.
Figure 2: Carrying on inthe Great Smog
The why doesn’t necessarily stop there. You could ask why was cheap coal needed? Why was the tram network removed? Why didn’t authorities predict the dramatic health problems the smog would produce – an estimated 12,000 people in the following weeks and months, mostly young, old and people with pre-exiting respiratory problems?
Figure 3: Deaths due to the Great Smog (source for image -Wikipedia)
You could also then explore the so what question. What was the significance of the Great Smog – in other words does it matter? At a micro scale every life lost dramatically answers the so what question. The individuals are not just numbers but people who had families, jobs an existence beyond the point they became in a historic graph. At a national scale, the so what is answered by the Clean Air Acts of 1956 and 1958, a direct outcome of the havoc caused by this pollution incident.