The forest air you breathe

Academy Professor Markku Kulmala has received a €2.5-million European Research Council Advanced Grant.

Forests clean the air. Photosynthesis in the foliage of trees has made life on the Earth possible. The recently appointed Academician Markku Kulmala has been roaming in forests since childhood, looking at the clouds and tending to the forest.

Kulmala is one of the founders of the new field of research that studies the interactions between ecosystems and the atmosphere.

 “I’ve tried to integrate many different views into my research, as the problem is global, and one we all share,” he says.

The global climate burden at nanoscale

Markku Kulmala’s research group is studying the impact of human behaviour and natural processes on air quality and the climate. There are many interactions between air quality and climate, and they are very complicated.

 “Polluted air changes the climate locally, and even globally. And the climate influences air quality in many ways – this is roughly how it goes,” Kulmala says.

A major mutable factor are small particles, the aerosols floating in the atmosphere. “We are talking about things measured in nanometers.”

Air quality changed by particles of less than 5 nanometers in China and Siberia

With his new ERC grant, Markku Kulmala intends to study how the particles in the atmosphere are generated and grow.

 “We have no information about the indirect physical and chemical reactions in the atmosphere related to the processes through which gas turns into nanoparticles in certain environments.”

 “Megalopolises such as China’s Beijing are central to this research. Their air is polluted and I want to find out how gas becomes a particle at the scale of less than 5 nanometers. We are using particles generated in the forests of northern coniferous regions as control data.”

Next-generation measuring instruments

A researcher studying a changing climate must work with observations and computer models. As the arctic and boreal areas are changing, research in these areas requires next-generation research infrastructures and measuring data.

There are a few such super research stations already built or under construction in Russia and China. Similar to the SMEAR (Station for Measuring Earth Surface - Atmospheric Relations) stations, they can simultaneously measure the biological activity of an ecosystem through aerosol particles, pollutant gases and greenhouse gases as well as meteorological factors.

 “We can only evaluate and predict changes in the atmosphere if we have reliable measurement data at our disposal,” says Kulmala.

“But we’re getting there, as we have been systematically collecting such data in Finland for a couple of decades,” he states.

Five-year ERC grant

Academy Professor Markku Kulmala is a leading researcher of atmosphere aerosol physics and chemistry. The research conducted under him has significantly increased global understanding of the mechanisms that underlie climate change.

 “We can slow down climate change and mitigate its impacts more effectively if we can understand the processes that take place when the atmosphere and various ecosystems interact,” he says.

“But this work cannot be done alone. We are already involving organisations from Finland and other Nordic countries as well as various EU undertakings such as our Academy of Finland’s Finnish Center of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences, the Nordic Centre of Excellence CRAICC and the European BACCHUS project,” Kulmala lists.

He will be happy to return to the Hyytiälä forestry field station, the most important Finnish measuring station for Kulmala.

Twelve researchers in the Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences have received ERC grants. Today, these researchers are working at the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Stockholm, the University of Oulu and the University of Vienna. They were all involved in the Centre of Excellence when they applied for the grant. Watch a recording of the ERC Seminar in Atmospheric Sciences that took place on 19 April 2017.

More information

Re­search fun­ded by European Re­search Coun­cil ERC at the University of Helsinki and at the Faculty of Science

Academy Professor Markku Kulmala (@MarkkuKulmala1): Publications, projects, activities, awards; Contact information

ERC funding

The European Research Council  funds significant scientific work. Applications are accepted from all fields of research. The ERC is an independent scientific council. It offers a range of different forms of funding, from grants for junior researchers to project grants intended for established researchers and grants for developing commercial applications of research. 

University of Helsinki research funded by the European Research Council