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Understanding what’s happening in the atmosphere

The pioneering research started by Professor Markku Kulmala at the University of Helsinki in the late 1980s has gone from strength to strength over the years – and has made the university a world leader in understanding atmospheric aerosol formation and the underlying biogenic processes behind it.

It all began with the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, at least for Academy Professor Markku Kulmala – who is also Professor of Aerosol and Environmental Physics at the University of Helsinki and Director of the Centre of Excellence in Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Meteorology of Atmospheric Composition and Climate Change, as well as a member of various other research organisations too numerous to list here.

The release of large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere that followed the meltdown and its subsequent migration across most of Europe, Finland included, provided the catalyst for Professor Kulmala’s career in a field in which he has since become an international name. It also triggered an investment in new measurement atmospheric monitoring equipment and the establishment of the first in what is now a network of four SMEAR (Stations for measuring Forest-Ecosystem Atmospheric Relationships) facilities across Finland.

Markku Kulmala’s initial work on how the fall-out from Chernobyl affected trees, the soil, and the atmosphere – combined with the continuous and comprehensive measurement data from the first SMEAR station – quickly developed into a much broader research endeavour and the beginnings of a new understanding of the role atmospheric aerosols play. Prior to his work, little had been known about the formation and dynamics of these aerosols, which are now recognised as one of the key factors in understanding climate change and predicting the likely development of the world’s future climate.

A european leader

Academy Professor Markku Kulmala has pioneered much of the work done on the phenomena behind climate change in Finland. His numerous articles on aerosol particles in the atmosphere, cloud formation, and how the atmosphere and biosphere interact with each other have made him the world’s most cited scientist in the geosciences. Photo: Peter Herring
The small team of just five people that Professor Kulmala started off with has grown into one of around 140 people and Europe’s largest concentration of aerosol research expertise today.

“In many ways, we were just lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he says rather modestly. He also stresses the multidisciplinary nature of the thinking that underpinned that early work and which continues to this day, involving not only other researchers at the University of Helsinki, such as the Department of Forest Sciences, but also organisations such as the Finnish Meteorological Institute and international initiatives such as PEGASOS (Pan- European Gas-Aerosol-Climate Interaction Study).

Kulmala is particularly proud of the SMEAR network, which is based on using the same stations to take atmospheric, tree, and soil measurements, rather than using separate facilities for phenomena such as greenhouse gases and photosynthesis, as is typically the case.

“I believe that this approach has given us a real edge, particularly in understanding the various processes that are at work.”

A similarly important development, he says, has been the advance made in measurement technology.

“When we started off, there was a ‘big, black hole’ of things that we simply couldn’t measure, between molecules and small particles. Our ability to measure phenomena in this area has been of critical importance, because it’s precisely here that new particulate matter first starts life. Understanding what happens here, and being able to model it, has probably been the most rewarding part of my work to date.”

He also highlights the advances that have been made in understanding the linkage between the carbon sink and aerosol sources in the biosphere as another particularly rewarding achievement.

While his research has taught him a lot personally and contributed valuable new knowledge to the scientific community, it has also underlined how much we still have to learn, he says.

“There is simply so much more to discover and so many more relationships underpinning climatic phenomena to unravel, such as how rising CO2 levels will ultimately affect aerosol generation, for example. Of course, that’s what keeps this field so fascinating as well,” he laughs.

For a scientist who comes face to face with the very real, and growing, impact that society is having on the air we breathe as part of his daily work, Markku Kulmala remains an optimist, at least for the moment.

“Only when we have accumulated and analysed much more measurement data and learned more about the mechanisms shaping it will we know the direction the world’s climate is truly going in and how much of what has already happened is irreversible.”

The Physicum Building on the Kumpula Science Campus. Photo: Peter Herring

Atmospheric science expertise

Based at the University of Helsinki’s Kumpula Science Campus, the Division of Atmospheric Sciences in the Department of Physics is home to over 100 staff, whose main fields of study cover areas such as the effects of atmospheric aerosols on climate and health, the microphysics of clouds, and the inter-relationships between the biosphere, aerosols, clouds, and climate.

Continuous measurements are carried via the university’s network of SMEAR field stations based in Helsinki, Hyytiälä, Kuopio, and Värriö, which have provided ground-breaking, long-term data for helping scientists understand how forests and the atmosphere in particular interact with each other. Data from the SMEAR network, together with the research carried out at the Division of Atmospheric Sciences, has played a key part in quantifying the agents responsible for climate change more accurately and improving the scientific community’s ability to project the future composition of the atmosphere.

Finland’s leading university

The University of Helsinki is one of Europe’s oldest universities. Founded in 1640 and comprising 11 faculties today, it is Finland’s most capable research university and is regularly ranked among the top 10 or 15 in Europe. Close to 10,000 scientific articles or monographs are published annually by faculty members. A total of around 36,500 degree students are enrolled, who study on four campuses in Helsinki and at 20 other localities around Finland. An average of 5,000 degrees are awarded annually, of which around 500 are doctorates.

(Published in HighTech Finland 2013)