What a difference a degree makes

Climate research is more important than ever. The Earth’s temperature has already risen by approximately one degree. If the temperature continues to increase at the current rate, we will surpass the limit of 1.5 degrees Centigrade by the middle of this century. Surpassing this limit would cause significant risks for both nature and humankind. A recent climate report by the IPCC indicates that we have 12 years to make the necessary emissions reductions.

The message from scientists is clear. The scale of the change needed to meet this challenge is unprecedented. Emissions cuts alone are not enough to curb the rise in the Earth’s temperature. We must also be able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using carbon sinks and the recovery of carbon dioxide. But it is not too late. From here on, each decision made, or not made, that affects climate will also affect the future of humankind. Each of these decisions should be based on high-quality scholarly research.

The University of Helsinki is rising to this challenge by leading the way in climate research. Our Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Science, led by Academy Professor Markku Kulmala, has established worldwide networks and discovered new factors affecting climate. We have built a world-class research infrastructure and have produced the world’s longest time series dataset on particulates. The University of Helsinki carries out 15% of the world’s particulate research. But there is still a lot we do not know.

The only way to secure a future for our planet is to mitigate climate change. To do so, we need research-based knowledge about what is happening on the ground, in the atmosphere and throughout our ecosystem.

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A diverse climate analysis requires sufficient data on the current situation of our planet. Comprehensive measurements are needed to produce credible information on, for example, those regions of the Earth that can reinforce carbon sinks and promote the emergence of particulates that cool the atmosphere. The unique SMEAR measuring station, developed by University of Helsinki climate researchers, has investigated interaction between the atmosphere and forests for close to three decades now. The station measures more than 1,200 variables in the air and the environment 24 hours a day.

The value of the world’s longest time series and measuring results will only increase, for climate dynamics cannot be understood without long-term measurements taken in the same place. Our time series are openly available to all researchers and universities to ensure the rapid progress of research. In addition to the measurements taken in Finland, SMEAR stations have been established in China, most recently in 2018 in Beijing, where a separate research laboratory in atmospheric science has also been set up.

For humanity to be able to rise to the challenge of global warming, high-quality climate data are needed from throughout the world. Our goal is to expand the network of SMEAR stations globally because effective decisions require a deep understanding based on detailed information. It is a highly ambitious goal, but extreme times call for extreme measures.

To curb climate change, we need more carbon sinks than carbon sources. Cutting greenhouse gases is not enough. We must also be able to bind carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example, in agricultural land and forests. Preliminary estimates by researchers suggest that the carbon stored in fields, pastures and similar areas could account for up to a fifth of the natural land use solutions required by climate change. For now, though, we do not yet have an exact idea of how to reach this goal.

Our high-quality SMEAR measuring equipment can also be used to analyse the impact of field cultivation on climate and air quality. Once we know more about these interactive mechanisms, we will be able to select the cultivation methods that both reduce the amount of greenhouse gas and nitrogen emissions and increase the ability of arable land to bind and store carbon in the long term.

The University of Helsinki also conducts top-level forest science research, and our forest scientists have long collaborated with physicists in investigating the interaction between forests and the atmosphere. The research focuses on establishing how we can promote the ability of forests to bind carbon and how this ability varies, for example, by forest type.

Nine out of ten people in the world already suffer from the negative impact of poor air quality on human health. The chemical cocktail in the atmosphere annually leads to the premature deaths of more than 5.5 million people.

Current air quality indices do not tell the whole story on the present situation. The measuring equipment behind the indices are able to identify an average of 10 different particles, whereas a SMEAR station can observe up to 1,200 different components of the atmosphere. Current measuring equipment is also unable to detect particulates of a size under PM2.5. Unfortunately, it is precisely the smallest particulates that are often the most dangerous.

To obtain better data on air quality, the SMEAR measuring stations must be supplemented with a network of smart sensors that collect extensive information from a specific area. The information gathered by the sensors can be automatically calibrated with artificial intelligence and SMEAR data. This will allow us to obtain high-standard information on air quality to support the decision-making of public officials in polluted cities and facilitate the daily lives of residents. Currently, the MegaSense network of sensors is being piloted in Helsinki and Beijing. Preliminary results indicate that the collected data can contribute to our understanding and thus help develop effective solutions, for example, for the city of Beijing.

Top-level air quality research – a SMEAR station combined with a regionally comprehensive network of sensors – is key to promoting the quality of life and health of millions of people.

The University of Helsinki improved the conditions of top-level climate research by establishing the Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research (INAR). The Institute promotes research on the atmosphere and the environment and produces research-based knowledge for the benefit of the wider community. The Institute is connected to several disciplines: physics, chemistry, meteorology, forest sciences, environmental sciences and, increasingly, social sciences.

Indeed, one of the specific strengths of the University of Helsinki is multidisciplinary research. Understanding extensive macro-phenomena, such as climate systems and climate change, requires simultaneous exploration of both molecular details and global changes. This is the only way to obtain a coherent overview of the ecosystem.

The Institute for Atmospheric and Earth System Research also plays an important role in coordinating international research networks and infrastructures. This promotes the progress and impact of research as well as the efficient use of resources. Our multidisciplinary Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) is also involved in the sustainability change affecting our society and aims to become an internationally attractive research community. HELSUS participates in the development of indicators that monitor the implementation of the UN’s sustainable development goals in Finland.

The only way to secure a future for our planet is to mitigate climate change. To do so, we need research-based knowledge about what is happening on the ground, in the atmosphere and throughout our ecosystem. To succeed, we need your help. Support us now.