Impactful research on environment, climate and sustainability.
What are the variables to consider in environmentally friendly land use planning? Researchers have developed software that ranks different land use options from an environmental perspective.
Land use is one of humanity’s great challenges. The global population is on the rise while natural environments are deteriorating around the world. How can we best allocate space for housing, food production, transportation and nature? What is a good location for an industrial zone? Where are the natural areas that should be protected? These are decisions with far-reaching consequences, and for this reason their effects must be made clear.
Research Director Atte Moilanen from the University of Helsinki started looking for the answers by developing software that would help land use planners consider the many different environmental aspects when prioritising areas for nature conservation.
The goal was an application that could indicate which areas would yield the most benefit in terms of biodiversity, natural habitats and ecosystem services if they were protected and maintained. For example, which areas would be best for protecting the full range of species in Finnish forests, or in Finland’s submarine ecosystems?
Research findings: Ecological concerns can be acknowledged in land use planning
The first version of Zonation, the software developed by Moilanen’s research group, was released in 2005. The research was funded by the Academy of Finland, with additional support granted for the software development by the European Research Council and the Ministry of the Environment.
The result of the development is an application that can analyse, for example, the land in Finland by one-hectare squares, or all the land area in the world at a resolution of one square kilometre, according to 22,000 biodiversity characteristics.
These characteristics include the number of animal species, communities of organisms and habitats, ecosystem services and genes. The most common ways of measuring biodiversity is to measure the abundance of species in a specific area. However, Zonation can prioritise areas according to all the biodiversity characteristics simultaneously.
Analyses generated by the software can be used to:
• Plan networks of conservation areas and their expansion
• Avoid or mitigate the negative ecological impacts of construction
• Support zoning
• Restore habitats and allocate environmental stewardship measures
• Allocate ecological compensation. Ecological compensation is a way of cancelling out the negative effects of environmentally detrimental measures by restoring damaged habitats elsewhere.
Zonation is also able to take into account the costs of nature conservation and alternative costs. Consequently, it can allocate biodiversity resources with optimum efficiency.
Research impact: Zonation is in use around the world
Zonation has been widely adopted in Finland and elsewhere. Metsähallitus, Finland’s state-owned forest administration body, was the first to adopt the software in 2008, to help plan the expansion of the governmental forest conservation network. Zonation is also used in the METSO programme which promotes voluntary conservation of forests in southern Finland.
In addition to the Finnish Environment Institute and Metsähallitus, Zonation has also been used by several regional councils. The software has been used in the preparation of regional land use plans to prioritise the urban landscaping in Uusimaa and the peatlands in central Finland. An evaluation of the impact of Finland’s marine conservation network and identification of development targets is being conducted in 2018—2019.
Zonation has been downloaded in most countries of the world, and all regional councils in New Zealand, for example, will soon have completed their land use plans based on Zonation analyses.
Three updated versions have been released since 2005, with a fourth update currently planned with funding granted by the Kone Foundation in 2018.
In 2018, the Society for Conservation Biology granted Moilanen the esteemed SCB Europe Distinguished Service Award in memory of Ilkka Hanski. The award was granted for Moilanen’s efforts to introduce methods from ecology, mathematics and computer science into research on nature conservation and sustainable environmental stewardship.
Further information on the research:
As a consequence of the nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a massive water treatment operation is currently underway, utilising a method based on selective ion exchange developed at the University of Helsinki. The new material accelerates the process and reduces the amount of solid radioactive waste requiring permanent storage.
In the spring of 2011, a nuclear accident occurred in Fukushima, Japan. Even though the treatment of radioactive water in the area has been going on for years, the work still continues. For the time being, Japanese authorities have not permitted running the water into the sea, as total purification is yet to be achieved. Enormous tanks have been constructed on the plant premises for storing radioactive and less radioactive but hazardous water.
Due to the impossibility of entirely preventing water seeping from the ground into the broken nuclear reactor, the daily output of radioactive water is 400 cubic metres. Water flowing through the failed reactor is immediately contaminated by radionuclides.
The plant’s owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company TEPCO, is responsible for the purification operation, which is in practice carried out by several companies using a variety of methods.
The treatment is implemented by pumping radioactive water through a water treatment system that houses 14 columns, each of which removes one radioactive substance from the water. The radioactive substances are suspended in sediment, to be transferred into permanent storage at a later date. This is the goal, as radioactive solids are easier and safer to process and store than radioactive water.
To extract key fission products at the Fukushima plant, granular sodium titanate, a material developed at the University of Helsinki, is used. In terms of caesium and strontium, removal is close to perfect: 99.9%.
The ion exchange for nuclear waste treatment and for recycling research group, headed by researcher Risto Koivula, is developing removal techniques based on ion exchange. The researchers have tested the impact of electrospinning on the ion exchange characteristics of sodium titanate. In other words, they are looking into whether water treatment could be intensified.
Research findings: Reaction rate of material grows
The research carried out by Koivula’s group indicated that electrospun sodium titanate speeds up the treatment of radioactive water based on selective ion exchange. The benefits of electrospun material are associated with the kinetics of ion exchange, or reaction rate, as more water can be treated with the same amount of exchange material. In addition, the collected fibres can be compacted into a small volume for permanent storage.
The electrospinner equipment in use at the University of Helsinki has been developed and manufactured under the direction of Mikko Ritala at the Centre of Excellence for Atomic Layer Deposition. This fairly simple technique was successfully tested in processing sodium titanate into fibres.
Koivula’s group investigated the ion exchange characteristics of the resultant fibres, observing that they function similarly to commercial products, which makes it possible to market electrospun material to be used at locations currently using granular materials.
Research impact: Smaller tanks and less to store
For now, electrospinning and its end-product have been experimented with at the Department of Chemistry, University of Helsinki on the laboratory level. The new material appears to work better than the currently marketed sodium titanate, making its production and marketing on an industrial scale the next step of development.
Passing through ion exchange material placed in cylinders, radioactive strontium in the wastewater is changed into ordinary sodium found in table salt. Once full ion exchange capacity is reached, the material used for filtering must be replaced. This process produces solid radioactive waste.
As the amount of electrospun material needed for water treatment is smaller to begin with, radioactive waste to be put in permanent storage will also require less space.
Further information on the research:
Soil characteristics, such as temperature and humidity, are central to plant growth. Research conducted at the University of Helsinki has established a foundation for wireless sensors that can be buried underground to help the online monitoring of soil conditions, for example, in fields and golf courses.
Plant growth is influenced by the soil, including its temperature and humidity. Samples collected from soil can be analysed to determine the soil type and its nutrient levels, while the humidity of soil can be locally observed by digging holes or by using indicators that can be read aboveground. Realised rainfall can also be used to extrapolate trends in soil humidity.
However, estimates based on observations made aboveground are in many ways challenging. The ability of various soil layers to transport water varies, which can make differences in humidity great in individual spots even very close to each other. Furthermore, the roots of many plants go deep, making the information gained by focusing on surface layers unreliable in terms of the root system. Predictions require physically traversing the arable land, which takes a lot of time. In addition, any information gained is not automatically stored.
In the beginning of the 2000s, Johannes Tiusanen wanted to find out in conjunction with his studies in agricultural technology whether it would be possible to design a system that would provide means for wireless data acquisition from underground and, thus, manage the soil as practically as possible. In his doctoral dissertation, Tiusanen focused on physics, mathematics and radio technology.
The study is groundbreaking basic research, as the transfer of radio waves in the ground had not been thoroughly studied before.
Research findings: Wireless sensors are able to continuously produce information from underground
The research overturned several technical barriers. As soil humidity changes, so does its conductivity, requiring a broadband antenna as small as possible to emit a radio signal in varying humidity conditions.
Tiusanen also came up with a method of relaying the signal from the sensor to the antenna. All of this resulted in a sensor prototype and, eventually, in the establishment of a company known as Soil Scout.
Research impact: Water and effort are conserved at golf courses, while crop levels and soil conditions can be combined in farming
Golf courses have a long tradition of monitoring the soil and its condition, which is why they have shown initial interest in employing the sensors in the United States. The sensors have also made it possible to constantly monitor humidity in golf course fairways where manual observation is difficult due to their continuous use.
The sensors are also in use in large baseball stadiums in the United States. At Wembley Stadium and the Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball stadium, for instance, they guide the drainage equipment hidden beneath the fields.
In Finland, Tiusanen himself uses the sensors to monitor the humidity of his own field. Every 20 minutes they send out current information, which he combines with data gained from a crop mapper installed in the harvester, revealing the effect of conditions on crops in each growth period.
The sensors have also been tested in determining the irrigation needs of flower pools maintained by the City of Helsinki, in addition to which they are being tested in predicting landslides in Sri Lanka. The sensors are used to identify the boundary values for temperature, humidity and conductivity after which soil stability begins to decline.
Further information on the research:
Johannes Tiusanen’s doctoral dissertation entitled Langattoman peltotiedustelijan maanalainen toimintaympäristö ja laitesuunnittelu (‘Underground operational environment of a wireless field scout and its design’, dissertation in Finnish only with an English-language summary)