An instrument on the International Space Station (ISS) has detected more than 50 sites on Earth that are super-emitters of the potent greenhouse gas methane, NASA announced last week.
These facilities, equipment and other infrastructure that emit methane at high rates span central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States. By finding these sites from space, the satellite is bringing an important perspective to climate accountability, NASA says.
“It’s a unique capability that will raise the bar on efforts to attribute methane sources and mitigate emissions from human activities,” David Thompson, NASA’s instrument scientist for the project, says in a statement.
The detector, called the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT), wasn't originally intended to search for methane; rather, it was launched to look for mineral dust. It measures minerals’ spectral signatures, or the unique combination of wavelengths of light that each material absorbs and reflects. EMIT measures these signatures to reveal which minerals are present in dust-producing deserts across much of the world, helping researchers understand their effect on the climate.
The instrument can look for methane in the same way. “It turns out that methane also has a spectral signature in the same wavelength range, and that’s what has allowed us to be sensitive to methane,” EMIT principal investigator Robert Green said at a press conference, according to Space.com’s Mike Wall.
Among the dozens of plumes of methane spotted by EMIT so far, one stretches for about two miles in the Permian Basin, a massive oil field southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico. This source of methane emissions was previously undetected, writes Grist’s Avery Schuyler Nunn.
EMIT also identified 12 plumes from oil and gas infrastructure in Turkmenistan, some longer than 20 miles. Together, the Turkmenistan sources release an estimated 111,000 pounds of methane gas per hour, a similar flow rate to a 2015 Los Angeles-area leak that was among the largest in U.S. history, per NASA.
“Some of the plumes EMIT detected are among the largest ever seen—unlike anything that has ever been observed from space,” Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says in the statement.
NASA should be able to spot more super-emitters over time. “We are really only scratching the surface of EMIT’s potential for mapping greenhouse gases,” Thorpe said at the press conference, as reported by Space.com.
As greenhouse gases build up in the atmosphere, they trap heat and warm the planet. Methane accounts for about 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. But the potent gas is roughly 80 times as powerful a heat blanket as carbon dioxide is during the first 20 years after its release.
Methane in the atmosphere increased by a record amount last year, reports CNET’s Monisha Ravisetti. Oil fields, pipelines, landfills and animal feedlots all can be methane super-emitters, according to Grist, and fossil fuel production, biomass burning and improper waste management also contribute significantly to emissions of the gas.
Researchers say some methane sources can be remedied without a steep price tag, such as by requiring oil and gas companies to fix leaking equipment or banning intentional direct releases of the gas, Grist writes. Since methane only lasts in the atmosphere for about ten years, compared to the centuries that carbon dioxide sticks around, reducing methane emissions could contribute to slowing global warming sooner, writes Reuters’ Steve Gorman.