An Academician on the Silk Road31/05/17Environment
Physics professor Markku Kulmala explores the northern boreal area to make climate predictions less uncertain, as well as promoting open science and business
As a physics student I was probably no more than a mediocrity. Later it turned out that I am good at connecting people – and getting them to work together.” This was how Finnish physics professor Markku Kulmala described himself at the ceremony where he was awarded the title of Academician of Science. The humble words do not, however, do him justice: the title is the highest honour that can be bestowed on any individual scientist in Finland.
The appointment did not come as a surprise, as it was not the first time Kulmala had been recognised for his work. His achievements are convincing, having made many scientific breakthroughs in the field of atmospheric research and, together, with his colleagues, he has exceeded the publication threshold of Nature and Science multiple times; he has been the most cited geoscientist in the world since 2011.
Kulmala works as a professor of aerosol physics at the University of Helsinki and as the director of the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences. His main focus has always been on basic research, but, supported by his team, he has established two successful spin-off enterprises that develop and manufacture products such as particle counters and special sensors sold in Europe and China.
Moreover, Kulmala is one of the principal founders of specific observation stations, the so-called ‘SMEAR-stations’. SMEAR stands for ‘station for measuring Earth surface-atmosphere relations’. These are a kind of laboratory, located in the forest, on a glacier, over peat lands, or in urban areas. The stations are equipped to measure the complex interlinks between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere, thus helping scientists to understand the ecosystem as a whole. Altogether there are six SMEAR-stations, four in Finland, one in Estonia, and one in China.
“All our scientific achievements, as well as the industrial applications, are based on measurement data produced by the SMEAR-stations. They have been and continue to be the cornerstone of everything we do,” Kulmala said.
Despite the bestowal of the title of the Academician, there is still a lot more that Kulmala wants to do. Amongst other things, for instance, he would like to extend the network of SMEAR-stations over Siberia to China, working towards a future in which more than 400 stations exist worldwide.
According to Kulmala, measurement data produced by the stations could remarkably reduce the uncertainty of current climate models. More importantly, the data would advance the development of practical and technical solutions to air quality problems in, for example, Chinese cities.
Kulmala and his team have already taken the first steps to establish new SMEAR-stations in the northern boreal area. They call their project the ‘Pan Eurasian Experiment’, which is a supradisciplinary scientific programme spreading from Scandinavia to China.
The Pan Eurasian Experiment is an enormous endeavour financially, politically and logistically. In addition to money, a lot of co-operation between the political leaders of Europe, Russia and China is required. Eventually, tens or even hundreds of builders and engineers will be needed to start constructing, mounting, assembling, and transporting masses of raw materials, tools, spare parts, electronics and the like.
The cost per station is expected to rise up to some €10m. Kulmala believes, however, that the Pan Eurasian Experiment will pay for itself in the future: “The way the climate is changing depends heavily on Earth-atmosphere connections in the northern boreal area, especially Siberia. Until we know the complex feedback loops of the ecosystem prevailing out there, we can’t make reliable predictions on global warming,” he said.
Several feedback loops described by Kulmala are phenomena strongly connected with aerosol particles – tiny liquid or solid particles that typically stay in the atmosphere for a few days. They are often of anthropogenic origin, but many are borne by Nature – for example as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Kulmala explained that the aerosol particles not only act as a source of feedback loops but also influence the radiation balance of the Earth: “To see the big picture, we first have to drill into nanometre-class molecules, and this is exactly why we want to establish new SMEAR-stations. They provide us with the long-term data needed to tackle the potentially significant details looming behind the evident macro-phenomena.”
Recently, Kulmala reached an agreement with Russian officials to establish a new SMEAR-station in Nadym, Siberia. While gradually proceeding with the implementation, Kulmala and his team are also actively fighting air quality problems in China, which opened its first SMEAR-station in 2015.
For example, the researchers at the centre of excellence recently succeeded in revealing the ultimate cause of persistent smog in urban areas. They demonstrated that the persistence of a pollutant haze was hidden in the physical properties of the boundary layer of the air. In certain conditions now identified by the scientists, the boundary layer might cause something of a ‘vicious circle’ – a loop which strengthens itself. As a result, the pollutant concentration increases although the original emission remains constant.
“Knowledge like this helps to develop early warning systems and clean technology. But it is valuable from the point of view of science itself, too,” Kulmala says. “It is our way of promoting physics and chemistry.”
Back to the Silk Road
A look on the map reveals that the Pan Eurasian Experiment covers the Silk Road, the route used by ancient merchants trading between the East and West in the era of the Tang Dynasty, quite well. Besides business, cultural exchange flourished along the Silk Road at this time, while the modern Silk Road Economic Belt probably offers business possibilities in many ways, too.
Kulmala’s team has great hands-on experience in the field of observational technology. This is simply because the scientists usually have to develop and construct their measurement instruments themselves. “There are no shops to buy them, nor anyone else to do the work,” Kulmala explained. “Our first spin-off firms, Airmodus Ltd and Karsa Ltd, were born this way – as a byproduct of basic research. Originally, the purpose was just to improve the resolution of our apparatus.
“We have also co-operated with various enterprises by offering them test beds in our SMEAR-stations. This kind of activity could be further proceeded on our way along the Silk Road, too.”
The industrial applications of science are not the main point for Kulmala, however. He emphasises the Pan Eurasian Experiment as a programme which educates people and spreads the scientific heritage originated in SMEAR-related research.
“We have established courses and winter and summer schools where students from all over the world have an opportunity of growing up to be a scientist. Our senior researchers, on the other hand, have a forum inside the Pan Eurasian Experiment programme to publish their results,” he said.
The triumph of physics
In May 2017, Finland took the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, which probably further increases Kulmala’s activities on the Silk Road. In his capacity as an Academician, Kulmala may establish relations with decision makers and industrial stakeholders inside the discussion forums of the council.
He does not want to concentrate on lobbying, however: “The head of the scientific society has to be a scientist himself. In other words, I have to publish like all the other people in the Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences. Otherwise, my researchers and employees could not rely on me.”
Currently, there are 250 scientists working under the banner of Kulmala in the centre of excellence, which is located in the campus of the University of Helsinki. Most are physicists or forest scientists, but there are also meteorologists, chemists, mathematicians and data analysts, as well as engineers.
The scientists at the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences have received numerous prizes for their achievements in the field of atmospheric sciences – while Kulmala himself is known for his discoveries that revealed the role of non-charged clusters in the formation process of aerosol particles.
According to Kulmala, his team would not have been so successful were it not for the fact that so many physicists are among their number: “We are not the only scientists in the world exploring the atmosphere, but we are the only team with a main focus on physics. Physics is a very basic science and forms the skeleton of scientific thinking. On the other hand, the problems connected with air quality or climate change are so complex that no field or person solves them alone.
“Had I not joined with forest scientists, chemists and other experts, I would still be working on the details of aerosol formation without any holistic view of the ecosystem. In that case, there would be no SMEAR centres nor any centres of excellence, not to mention particle counters, which are currently sold on the global market.”
At the age of 58, Kulmala is the youngest Academician of Science in Finland today. While he has many years left in his illustrious career, looking back at what he sees as his greatest achievement thus far, he said: “During the establishment of the SMEAR-stations, I was working 100 hours per week, year after year. I hardly visited home. Despite this, I am still married to my wife, whom I met when we were both students. She has stood by me throughout, and we are still happy together. This is my main achievement in life.”
Smear-station is a laboratory in the terrain
Occasional visitors are usually awed by the view over the SMEAR-observational station, which to an outsider may look like a scene from a science fiction film: bulky experimental devices and strange buildings scattered in the woods.
This is because a typical SMEAR-station consists of laboratories, maintenance buildings, power supplies, and, of course, the residences for the researchers and technical staff. A measurement tower or mast usually dominates the landscape, while small wooden cottages might look cosy but are filled with mass spectrometers, gas analysers and other scientific equipment.
All this is needed to measure the material and energy flows prevailing between the Earth and the atmosphere. Material flows include gaseous chemical substances emitted by vegetation. They react in many complex ways with the molecular clusters already present in the air, thus forming aerosol particles. An example of the energy flows is the radiation emitted by the Sun and the Earth’s surface.
There are altogether a myriad of different material and energy flows, concentrations and compositions. One SMEAR-station simultaneously measures some 1,200 of them, around the clock and throughout the year. By integrating the measurement activities, scientists are able to construct high-quality data which offers a unique insight into the phenomena prevailing between the Earth and the layers of the atmosphere.
The first of the current SMEAR-stations was established by Kulmala and his colleagues as early as 1991, and it has produced an unbroken series of data since then.
One of the missions of Kulmala is to make all the data public. For him, ‘open science’ specifically means data accessibility. Anyone acquainted with problems of documentation, storing and the computation of data into user-friendly packages can appreciate the magnitude of the project.
“But we have a good start, and thanks to our data experts and analysts, I think we will succeed,” Kulmala concluded.
Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Science
University of Helsinki
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 23, which will be published in July, 2017.