Moving ecosystems to caves for a more secure future — developing problem-solving and group work skills at the Future Factory

Powerful electromagnetic radiation caused by solar storms can interfere with or even break electrical devices. At the Future Factory competition group of mathematics and physics students thought about our ability to survive on Earth after a devastating solar radiation event — how can we prevent essential systems crashing if the ozone layer no longer protects us from such radiation.


What would happen if an immense solar flare made a hole in the ozone layer? How would we cope if all our electrical devices stopped working? The ‘Tellustubbies’, a group of first-year students from the University of Oulu’s Faculty of Science, were among the students taking part in the Future Factory competition. The competition asked them to think about the problems environmental change poses for our planet and its atmosphere.

The group began by considering what was relevant to the theme. The impact of space weather on Earth, especially the negative effects of electromagnetic radiation and superflares, began to spark the students’ interest. Ultimately, they decided to find a solution to the threat posed by an exceptionally powerful solar storm. To do this, the students had to decide whether they wanted to focus on a pre-emptive or reactive solution and whether their solution was intended to save technology and technological assets or natural ones.


Defining the solution in the wake of an electromagnetic storm

Solar storms generate electromagnetic radiation and weaken the ozone layer. An extremely powerful flare, otherwise known as a superflare, is even capable of making a hole in the ozone layer. Electromagnetic radiation can also cause problems for electrical devices, satellites, and radio telecommunications. In other words, many of our modern technologies.

For example, problems with the electricity grid can lead to clean water shortages and disruptions to phone service, computer access, and food production, to mention only a few. Solar storms do not last long, but their accumulative impact can be felt well after they end. It can take a long time to restore and repair infrastructures and systems.

 ‘The problem is one of being able to maintain a functioning society. It comes down to water and power sources’, group member Iida Ahonen observes.

The group found it hard to narrow-down the problem and define the solution, especially with a topic as interesting as space weather. They had to carefully consider which parts of the issue they wanted to focus on and what the consequences of the problem they identified were. In the end, the Tellustubbies group decided their task would be to come up with ways to survive the month following a powerful solar storm.

‘Modern technology allows us to forecast powerful solar storms and prepare ourselves for the resultant radiation’, notes Jimi Forsell.  


Jimi Forsell, Riku Kotiaho and Annika Tolonen preparing their presentation


Keeping animals, plants, and lithium batteries safe

The group proposed the idea of an ‘animal bank’, which would serve as a sanctuary for different kinds of ecosystems. Any degradation of the ozone layer has an impact on the diversity of ecosystems. Indeed, without the protection the ozone layer provides, dangerous ultraviolet radiation can harm plants and animals. As Ahonen goes on to explain, radiation can cause long-term changes in organisms; for example, chromosomal damage. Problems with the electricity networks bring about other issues for food production.

As part of the solution put forward by the group, ecosystems would be established and then moved away from harm, into the safety of cave networks. In this way, both the means of producing food and the diversity of nature can be ensured. The proposed underground microclimates may also be beneficial under circumstances other than those associated with an electromagnetic storm. For example, could cave-based agriculture assist regions suffering from the impact of climate change? Photo- and chemosynthesis can still occur in underground environments with the use of artificial sunlight and cave walls can provide protection from radiation.

By storing lithium batteries in such caves and by creating networks capable of withstanding electromagnetic pulses, the group are satisfied that technology can also be preserved. But could a solar flare be useful? According to Hanna Pulkkinen, the resulting acute energy spike can be so huge that it would be difficult to store it for use, at least with our current technology.

‘The electromagnetic radiation produced by superflares is so powerful that it would destroy the technology we use’, notes the group's spokesperson, Annika Tolonen.



Iida Ahonen, Hanna Pulkkinen, Teemu Salmela and Arttu Rimali thinking about their solution

Problem-solving and group work skills

The work done at the Future Factory follows a problem-based approach to learning. Each of the student groups has a problem that they must solve by working together. Such an approach teaches the students about scheduling, planning, prioritisation, and how to set out specific limits for solutions. It is also a great way to strengthen group working skills. During their time in the Future Factory the Tellustubbies learned how to work towards a common goal and to value the contributions of others. The group began their task by ideating, choosing a topic, searching for information, defining the problem, and then coming up with a solution.

‘When you work with other people in this way you come up with ideas, information, and solutions that just wouldn’t be possible alone’, Tolonen remarks. In fact, the group all agreed that the best part of the Future Factory was working together to produce solutions to the problems they identified.

‘We're all really happy with what we've produced. Once we got going, we worked really well and efficiently to finalise it. We are paying particular attention to the quality of the work, the way it has been presented, and how interesting and creative the idea behind it is when we vote’, Tolonen concludes.



Buzz at Tellus during Future Factory

Prizes for the best Future Factory solutions

The Future Factory problem-solving competition for new students got underway on Friday 7th of September. Students split into small groups according to their major subjects and set about finding solutions to problems in their own area of expertise. The competition themes were selected in accordance with the UN aims for sustainable development and the research focus areas of the University of Oulu.

The ‘Tellustubbies’ (Iida Ahonen, Jimi Forsell, Riku Kotiaho, Hanna Pulkkinen, Arttu Rimali, Teemu Salmela, and Annika Tolonen) all felt the nerves before their idea was presented at the Future Factory Gala on Wednesday 19th September. All of the groups submitted their final work by Sunday 9th September and cast their vote for the best group work 11-14th Sept. The groups that received the most votes were invited to the gala event. The prize winners received gift cards for various activities and restaurants.

Public voting has started on Wednesday 19th September - go and vote for your favourite!


Read more about solar flares and solar particle storms:

Atmospheric impact of the strongest known solar particle storm assessed

Last updated: 21.9.2018