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Water is a treasure

Human activities have a strong impact on water cycle and water quality, which leads to challenges in both Finland and elsewhere in the world.
Aalto University School of Engineering

At Aalto University, water resources management is part of the water and environmental engineering research, covering the distribution, use and management of water resources. The focus is on issues concerning fresh waters and water cycle.

– We are looking at water as a natural resource: how it is distributed in space and time, what happens to it and how it is moving, explains Harri Koivusalo, Professor of Water Resources Engineering at Aalto University.

The researchers are interested in how forestry, agriculture, urban construction and land use in general change the cycle of surface and ground waters. Water flow and retention in streams, rivers and lakes, and the control of these processes by means of environmental hydraulics are also studied.

The researchers are also motivated by the fact that there is no life without water and that access to clean water is threatened by unsustainable use of water resources and pollution of waters in many parts of the world. In the worst affected areas, water resources are unusable or water consumption greatly exceeds the regeneration of water resources.

– Migration to cities is one phenomenon that has a strong impact on the management of water resources and water use in all parts of the world. Cities should be expanded and be built so that the natural cycle of water is less affected, says Koivusalo.

Climate is changing

It is snowing heavily outside as we are sitting in Koivusalo’s office, discussing water resources management. Koivusalo is familiar with many things concerning snow. His doctoral dissertation was about the accumulation and melt of snow in forests.

– There is snow in all parts of Finland in winter. This has an essential impact on the annual water cycle, which means that it has to be taken into account in hydrological research in northern areas.

Global warming may change the conditions so that snowless winters will become more frequent in southern parts of Finland. With this in mind, scientists studying water resources management are trying to anticipate how different scenarios of future warming are reflected to the water cycle.

The Finnish climate is favourable in the sense that precipitation is fairly evenly distributed over the seasons and that there is enough water. However, it is important to ensure the good quality of water.

– Agriculture, which is concentrated in coastal areas, is the biggest source of nutrient loads to surface waters in Finland. Other activities, such as forestry, peat production and mining also, impact water resources, at least locally. We should understand the water cycle in different land use area so that the supply and good quality of water can be secured.

The physical phenomena occurring in the water cycle are universal and the issues regarding the management and use of water resources are based on similar concerns in all parts of the world. Thus, there are professors in the research group for water resources management that are doing extensive research in international fields.

Modelling and experiments

The water engineering research group has the tools to measure the quantity and quality of water in both field conditions and in the laboratory. Flow of water will be studied in a hydraulic flume, which is currently under construction. Juha Järvelä, DSc (Tech.), is in charge of hydraulic flume experiments and research in the group.

– We are producing computational assessments of water cycle and the flow of water in surface and ground waters, in soils of the land areas, and in streams of the river networks. We are also modelling the accumulation and melting of snow in different parts of Finland.

According to Koivusalo, advances in technology now make it possible to produce increasingly complex models. The computational efficiency of computers continues to increase and there are now also open source code models that researchers can use and combine without restrictions.

There is also more information available as research institutes, such as the Finnish Environment Institute and the Finnish Meteorological Institute, have made their material freely available.

Broad competence for students

According to Koivusalo, the new master’s programme in water and environmental engineering aims to provide students with a wide knowledge base so that the graduates will be able to find work in a broad range of different tasks.

- The obligatory courses of the degree programme cover water and environmental engineering in general and thereafter the students are free to specialise in one or several areas of water and environmental engineering. Water and environmental engineering is such a broad field because a large number of professors, lecturers and researchers are working on multiple themes and basing their courses on the ongoing research.

For many students, the master’s thesis is the gateway to the first job. The Finnish environmental administration has traditionally provided positions for Masters of Science specialising in water resources management. According to Koivusalo, spending cuts in central government mean that finding a job in that sector may not be as easy as before. At the same time, however, cities, towns and consultant companies need water engineering experts. Some of the graduates seek work outside Finland.

There are also job opportunities in research institutes. In addition to water engineering, the water research may also link to issues concerning geology, environmental protection, forestry, agriculture or ecology.

 

Contact information:

Professor Harri Koivusalo
[email protected]

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