atmospheric science

An overnight train view of China’s Anthropocene – Part 1

An overnight train view of China’s Anthropocene – Part 1

The nighttrain from Shanghai to Beijing is a comfortable affair. The train is new and clean. My travel partner and I can charge our phones and relax on soft beds. The railway is almost frictionless, and overall the experience is similar to any ride in the West. But outside, as the vehicle roars through the early night, things become increasingly hazy. As we reach further out from the Shanghai metropolis there is a slow realisation that the urban air-polluted luminous glow would not be left behind.

For those who have yet to visit China, it’s hard to truly convey the extent of the air pollution problem. During our time in Shanghai the smog was all encompassing; we could feel it settle on our skin and invade our lungs with every breath. Outdoors there was no escaping it. The Chinese air pollution forecast designated the risk level ‘moderate,’ and we wondered what ‘high’ would entail.

Inside the train we lay on opposite bunks. I fixed the window blind ajar to keep a sleepy eye on nighttime tree tops and apartment blocks as we dart by. We passed endless residential towers as we edged by cities we would never become familiar with, some of which appear desolate, almost entirely unlit, but I can’t imagine for long. Once we passed directly under a giant coal fired power station and by countless fields illuminated in the haze by nocturnal agriculture. There are trucks loading at 3 a.m. Along this 1200 km stretch – think Paris to Madrid – the foggy dim light rarely ceded.

This true-color image over eastern China was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, on Oct. 16, 2002. The scene reveals dozens of fires burning on the surface (red dots) and a thick pall of smoke and haze (greyish pixels) filling the skies overhead. Credit: NASA (via Wikimedia Commons)

My traveling companion is a children’s doctor. She raised her concerns: what chance do children born in these cities today have of living long healthy lives? Will they live full lives breathing in this industrial gunk? She explained to me that respiratory diseases kill because of chronic inflammation in the lungs, similar to that experienced from exposure to cigarette smoke. Such inflammation can in time lead to reduced lung function and, consequently, increased pressure on the heart due to less oxygen intake. Then, as the heart works harder to introduce the oxygen the body needs, it can fail, leading to premature death.

Estimates on health issues relating to long-term exposure to air pollution in China are hard to come by. It’s also hard to assess how dangerous such exposure is, but it’s likely China will experience an epidemic of respiratory related illnesses in the near future. One recent study reported that the Chinese population will suffer about 1.6 million premature deaths each year due to air pollution. As well as the human cost of lost loved ones, these air pollution related health risks will become a tremendous financial burden on the national health system. In 2007, The World Bank estimated that the annual health cost of outdoor urban air pollution in China for 2003 was between 157 and 520 billion Chinese yuan, around 1-3% of China’s gross domestic product.

However, this year China announced it would, for the first time, introduce a human health air pollution watchdog. According to Chinese officials, this is the first attempt by the national government to address how pollution affects public health. One day, scientists will be able to report on how generations born today can benefit from such endeavours. But for now, the future remains uncertain.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the impact of air pollution in China and the country’s steps to usher a clean era for the 21st century. Keep an eye out for Part 2, appearing next week on Geolog.

By Conor Purcell, a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a science journalist with a PhD in Earth Science. He is the founding editor of and can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment?

GeoTalk: How will large Icelandic eruptions affect us and our environment?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Anja Schmidt, an interdisciplinary researcher at the University of Cambridge who draws from atmospheric science, climate modelling, and volcanology to better understand the environmental impact of volcanic eruptions. She is also the winner of a 2018 Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists. You can find her on twitter at @volcanofile. 

Thank you for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I was born and raised in Leipzig, Germany. I started my career completing an apprenticeship as an IT system engineer with the engineering company Siemens. I then decided to combine my interests in geology and IT by studying geology and palaeontology (with minors in Computing/IT and Geophysics) at the University of Leipzig in Germany. As part of my degree programme, I also studied at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment as an exchange student. I liked studying there so much I ended up returning to Leeds for a PhD.

My PhD on the atmospheric and environmental impacts of tropospheric volcanic aerosol again combined my interests in computing and volcanology, although I had to educate myself in atmospheric physics and chemistry, which wasn’t easy to begin with. However, I was embedded in a diverse,   supportive research group with excellent supervision, which eased the transition from being a geologist to becoming a cross between an atmospheric scientist and a volcanologist.

Initially, being neither one nor the other made me nervous. My supervisors and mentors all had rather straightforward career paths, whereas I was thought of as an atmospheric scientist when I presented my research in front of volcanologists and as a volcanologist when I presented to atmospheric scientists.

After my PhD, I spent just under 2 years at one post-doc before securing an independent research fellowship at the University of Leeds. The first year of total independence and responsibility as principle investigator was very challenging, but after a while I began to appreciate the benefits of the situation. I also really started to embrace the fact that I would always sit between the disciplines. I spent my summers in the United States at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, helping them to build up their capability to simulate volcanic eruptions in their climate model. These research visits had a major impact on my career as they generated a lot of new research ideas, opened up opportunities and strengthened my network of collaborators greatly.

I considered myself settled when, shortly before the end of my fellowship, a lectureship came up. It had the word ‘interdisciplinary’ in its title and I simply couldn’t resist. Since September 2017, I have been an interdisciplinary lecturer at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

At this year’s General Assembly, you will receive an Arne Richter Award for Outstanding Early Career Scientists for your work on the environmental impacts of volcanic eruptions. What brought you to study this particular field?

I have always been fascinated by volcanic eruptions, but my first active volcano viewing wasn’t until college, where I had to chance to travel to Stromboli, a volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. While studying at the University of Leipzig, I used every opportunity to join field trips to volcanoes. I ended up spending 10 weeks in Naples, Italy to work with Giovanni Chiodini, a researcher from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome, and his team on CO2 degassing from soils at the Solfatara volcano. Later on I was awarded a scholarship from the University of Leeds, which allowed me to delve deeper into the subject, although I ended up learning as much about atmospheric science and computer modelling as about volcanology.

Anja in front of the 2010 Fimmvörðuháls eruption in Iceland. Fimmvörðuháls was the pre-cursor eruption to Eyjafjallajökull. Credit: Anja Schmidt.

My PhD work focused on Icelandic volcanism and its potential effects on the atmosphere as well as society. In 2010, during the 3rd year of my PhD studies, Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland. While an eruption like this and its impacts did not really come as a surprise to a volcanologist, I personally considered it a game-changer for my career. I had an opportunity to witness the pre-cursor eruption in Iceland and present my research. Within a matter of months, interest in my work increased. I even started to advise UK government officials on the risks and hazards of volcanic eruptions in Iceland.

In August 2014, an effusive eruption started at the Holuhraun lava field in Iceland. To this date, analysing field measurements and satellite data of the site and modelling simulations keeps me busy. Many of my senior colleagues told me that there is one event or eruption that defined their careers; for me that’s the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption.

At the General Assembly you also plan to talk about your work on volcanic sulphur emissions and how these emissions can alter our atmosphere as well as potentially affect human health in Europe. Could you tell us a little more about this research?

On average, there is one volcanic eruption every three to five years in Iceland. The geological record in Iceland also reveals that sulphur-rich and long-lasting volcanic eruptions, similar to Iceland’s Laki eruption in 1783-1784, occur once every 200 to 500 years. Sulphur dioxide and sulphate particles produced by volcanic eruptions can have detrimental effects on air quality and human health. Historical records from the 1780s imply that the Laki eruption caused severe environmental stress and contributed to spikes in mortality rates far beyond the shores of Iceland. While these long-lasting eruptions occur much less frequently than more typical short-duration explosive eruptions (like Grímsvötn 2011), they are classified as ‘high-impact’ events.

I was always interested in investigating how a similar magnitude eruption like Laki’s would affect modern society. By combining a global aerosol microphysics model with volcanological datasets and epidemiological evidence, I led a cross-disciplinary study to quantify the impact that a future Laki-type eruption would have on air quality and human health in Europe today.

Our work suggests that such an eruption could significantly degrade air quality over Europe for up to 12 months, effectively doubling the concentrations of small-sized airborne particles in the atmosphere during the first three months of the eruption. Drawing from the epidemiological literature on human response to air pollution, I showed that up to 140,000 cardiopulmonary fatalities could occur across Europe due to such an eruption, a figure that exceeds the annual mortality from seasonal influenza in Europe.

In January 2012, this discovery was used by the UK government as contributing evidence for including large-magnitude effusive Icelandic eruptions to the UK National Risk Register. This will help to mitigate the societal impacts of future eruptions through contingency planning.

Anja and her colleague Evgenia Ilyinskaya from the University of Leeds carrying out measurements during the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland. Credit: Njáll Fannar Reynisson.

Since then, we have done more work on smaller-magnitude effusive eruptions such as the 2014-2015 Holuhraun eruption in Iceland, showing that this eruption resulted in short-lived volcanic air pollution episodes across central and northern Europe and longer-lasting and more complex pollution episodes in Iceland itself.

Something that you’ve touched on throughout this interview are the challenges of ‘sitting between the disciplines.’ From your experience, what has helped you address these issues throughout your career?

Indeed, it is often challenging to sit between the disciplines, but it can also be very rewarding. It helps to ignore boundaries between disciplines. I also tend to read a lot and very widely to get an idea of key concepts and issues in specific fields. In addition, I think collaboration and a willingness to challenge yourself are key if you want to make progress and break traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Anja, thank you so much for speaking to us about your research and career path. Before I let you go, what advice do you have for aspiring scientists? 

Be curious and never hesitate to ask a lot questions, no matter how ‘stupid’ or basic they may seem to you. The latter is particularly true when it comes to cross-disciplinary collaboration and work.  I also didn’t always follow the conventional route most people would advise you to take to achieve something. Never be afraid to take a chance or work with some level of risk.

I also have two or three close mentors that I can approach whenever I require some advice or feedback. No matter what career stage you are at, I think it almost always helps to get an outsider’s perspective and insight not only when there are problems.

Finally, never forget to have fun. Some of my best pieces of work were done when I was surrounded by collaborators that are really fun to be with and work with!

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer.


Ilyinskaya, E., et al.: Understanding the environmental impacts of large fissure eruptions: Aerosol and gas emissions from the 2014–2015 Holuhraun eruption (Iceland), Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 472, 309-322, 2017

Schmidt, A., et al.: Satellite detection, long-range transport, and air quality impacts of volcanic sulfur dioxide from the 2014–2015 flood lava eruption at Bárðarbunga (Iceland)Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres12097399757, 2015

Schmidt, et al.: Excess mortality in Europe following a future Laki-style Icelandic eruption, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(38), 15710-15715, 2011

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Federico Bianchi, a researcher based at University of Helsinki, working on understanding how clouds are born. Federico’s quest to find out has taken him from laboratory experiments at CERN, through to the high peaks of the Alps and to the clean air of the Himalayan mountains. His innovative experimental approach and impressive publication record, only three years out of his PhD, have been recognised with one of four Arne Richter Awards for Outstanding Early Career Scientists in 2017.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am an enthusiastic atmospheric chemist  with a passion for the mountains. My father introduced me to chemistry and my mother comes from the Alps. This mix is probably the reason why I ended up doing research at high altitude.

I studied chemistry at the University of Milan where I got my degree in 2009.  During my bachelor and master thesis I investigated atmospheric issues affecting the polluted Po’ Valley in Northern Italy and since then I have always  worked as an atmospheric chemist.

I did my PhD at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland where I mainly worked at the CLOUD experiment at CERN. After that, I used the acquired knowledge to study the same phenomena, first, at almost 4000 m in the heart of the Alps and later at the Everest Base Camp.

I did one year postdoc at the ETH in Zurich and now I have my own Fellowship paid by the Swiss National Science Foundation to conduct research at high altitude with the support of the University of Helsinki.

We are all intimately familiar with clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes and are bringers of shade, precipitation, and sometimes even extreme weather. But most of us are unlikely to have given much thought to how clouds are born. So, how does it actually happen?

We all know that the air is full of water vapor, however, this doesn’t mean that we have clouds all the time.

When air rises in the atmosphere it cools down and after reaching a certain humidity it will start to condense and form a cloud droplet. In order to form such a droplet the water vapor needs to condense on a cloud seed that is commonly known as a cloud condensation nuclei. Pure water droplets would require conditions that are not present in our atmosphere. Therefore, it is a good assumption to say that each cloud droplet contains a little seed.

At the upcoming General Assembly you’ll be giving a presentation highlighting your work on understanding how clouds form in the free troposphere. What is the free troposphere and how is your research different from other studies which also aim to understand how clouds form?

The troposphere, the lower part of the atmosphere, is subdivided in two different regions. The first is in contact with the Earth’s surface and is most affected by human activity. This one is called the planetary boundary layer, while the upper part is the so called free troposphere.

From several studies we know that a big fraction of the cloud seeds formed in the free troposphere are produced by a gas-to-particles conversion (homogeneous nucleation), where different molecules of unknown substances get together to form tiny particles. When the conditions are favourable they can grow into bigger sizes and potentially become cloud condensation nuclei.

In our research, we are the first ones to take state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude.

Federico has taken state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude. Credit: Federico Bianchi

At the General Assembly you plan on talking about how some of the processes you’ve identified in your research are potentially very interesting in order to understand the aerosol conditions in the pre-industrial era (a time period for when information is very scarce). Could you tell us a little more about that?

Aerosols are defined as solid or liquid particles suspended in a gas. They are very important because they can have an influence on the Earth’s climate, mainly by interacting with the solar radiation and cooling temperatures.

The human influence on the global warming estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (known as the IPCC) is calculated based on a difference between the pre-industrial era climate indicators and the present day conditions. While we are starting to understand the aerosols present currently, in the atmosphere, we still know very little about the conditions before the industrial revolution.

For many years it has been thought that the atmosphere is able to produce new particles/aerosol only if sulphur dioxide (SO2) is present. This molecule is a vapor mainly emitted by combustion processes; which, prior to the industrial revolution was only present in the atmosphere at low concentrations.

For the first time, results from our CLOUD experiments, published last year,  proved that organic vapours emitted by trees, such as alpha-pinene, can also nucleate and form new particles, without the presence of SO2. In a parallel study, we also observed that pure organic nucleation can take place in the free troposphere.

We therefore have evidence that the presence of sulphur dioxide isn’t necessary to make such a mechanism possible. Finally, with all this new information, we are able to say that indeed, in the pre-industrial era the atmosphere was able to produce new particles (clouds seeds) by oxidation of vapors emitted by the vegetation.

Often, field work can be a very rewarding part of the research process, but traditional research papers have little room for relaying those experiences. What were the highlights of your time in the Himalayas and how does the experience compare to your time spent carrying out laboratory experiments?

Doing experiments in the heart of the Himalayas is rewarding. But life at such altitude is tough. Breathing, walking and thinking is made difficult by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

I have always been a scientists who enjoys spending time in the laboratory. For this reason I very much liked  the time I spent in CERN, although, sometimes it was quite stressful. Being part of such a large international collaboration and being able to actively do science was a major achievement for me. However, when I realized I could also do what I love in the mountains, I just couldn’t  stop myself from giving it a go.

The first experiment in the Alps was the appetizer for the amazing Himalayan experience. During this trip, we first travelled to Kathmandu, in Nepal. Then, we flew to Luckla (hailed as one of the scariest airport in the world) and we started our hiking experience, walking from Luckla (2800 m) up to the Everest Base Camp (5300 m). We reached the measurement site after a 6 days hike through Tibetan bridges, beautiful sherpa villages, freezing nights and sweaty days. For the whole time we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The cultural element was even more interesting. Meeting new people from a totally different culture was the cherry on the cake.

However I have to admit that it was not always as easy as it sounds now. Life at such altitude is tough. It is difficult to breath, difficult to walk and to install the heavy instrumentation. In addition to that, the temperature in your room during nights goes well below zero degrees. The low oxygen doesn’t really help your thinking, especially we you need to troubleshoot your instrumentation. It happens often that after such journey, the instruments are not functioning properly.

I can say that, as a mountain and science lover, this was just amazing. Going on a field campaign is definitely the  best part of this beautiful job.

To finish the interview I wanted to talk about your career. Your undergraduate degree was in chemistry. Many early career scientists are faced with the option (or need) to change discipline at sometime throughout their studies or early stages of their career. How did you find the transition and what advice would you have for other considering the same?

As I said before, I studied chemistry and by the end of my degree my favourite subject moved to atmospheric chemistry. The atmosphere is a very complex system and in order to study it, we need a multidisciplinary approach. This forced me to learn several other aspects that I had never been in touch with before. Nowadays, I still define myself as a chemist, although my knowledge base is very varied.

I believe that for a young scientist it is very important to understand which are his or her strengths and being able to take advantage of them. For example, in my case, I have used my knowledge in chemistry and mass spectrometry to try to understand the complex atmospheric system.

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work.

Imaggeo on Mondays: A look inside a thunderstorm

Imaggeo on Mondays: A look inside a thunderstorm

This week’s contribution to Imaggeo on Mondays is a photograph of a mesocyclone – and its rotating wall cloud – photographed by Mareike Schuster, an atmospheric scientist from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

The picture was taken in June 2012 near Cheyenne, Wyoming in the United States during a field campaign, ROTATE, led by the Center for Severe Weather Research, based in Boulder, Colorado. ROTATE stands for Radar Observations of Tornadoes and Thunderstorms Experiment. The mission aimed at probing the inner workings of tornadoes to better understand the intensity and variability of low level winds in these vortices. The experiment setup included several mobile Doppler radars (DOWs) that would measure the convective storm from a distance, and also multiple “mobile mesonet” vehicles – vehicles equipped with weather observation instruments- whose passengers would deploy numerous so called “tornado pods” right in the pathway of a tornado. The instruments of the pods might have been destroyed but the data was saved on “armored black boxes” for later analysis.

What are mesocyclones?

A mesocyclone is a cyclone that is embedded within a convective storm – together they form a supercell. The mesocyclone is characterized through ascending air, that in most cases rotates cyclonic. If the mesocyclone has large vertical extent and persists long enough it can be detected by a Doppler radar and appears as a couplet of motion (of the water droplets in the storm towards and away from the radar) in the data.

What is a wall cloud?

The mesocyclone becomes visible through a persistent lowering of the cloud base – the wall cloud – caused by the condensation of updrafting air. The so called wall cloud typically forms beneath the rain free base of a supercell and indicates the area of the strongest updraft. Wall clouds are inflow clouds, local and tend to slope inward. Please note that they are often mixed-up with shelf clouds (not shown), which in turn are outflow clouds that have a larger extent and are associated with a different atmospheric feature. A wall cloud can also form below a thunderstorm if there is no rotation – but if it rotates, then this indicates the existence of a mesocyclone. So it was the case in this picture.

Sometimes, tornadoes form within the mesocyclone of a supercell. The mesocyclone shown here, however, did not.

The motion of the supercell in the shot is towards the observer. All the dark clouds in the photograph basically show the wall cloud. The storm is already very close to the observer. The rest of the thunderstorm, e.g. the cumulonimbus cloud and the typical anvil are so large, they are far above and behind the observer and did not fit on the frame. Everything’s bigger in the U.S. !  😉

By Mareike Schuster, Institut für Meteorologie, Freie Universität Berlin


The picture was taken with a Nikon D5100 and a Tamron 10-24mm wide angle lense.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at