Our atmosphere is active and ever-changing – except when it isn’t. Some areas, including many cities, are prone to what’s known as a temperature inversion, where a layer of cooler air gets trapped underneath a warmer one. Because this means that a dense layer is caught under a less dense one, the situation is stable and – absent other changes in circumstances – will stick around. There are several ways this can happen, including overnight when areas near the ground cool faster than the atmosphere higher up. 

When temperature inversions persist, they can trap pollutants and create health hazards. One of the worst of these recorded occurred in December 1952 in London. An anticyclone created a temperature inversion over the city that trapped smoke from coal burned to warm homes and reduced visibility – sometimes even indoors – to only a meter or two. Thousands of people died from the respiratory effects of the five-day smog, and it prompted major efforts to improve emissions and air quality. Temperature inversions cannot be avoided, but the Great Smog of London taught us the necessity of reducing their danger.  (Image credit: Getty Images)