New Satellite Will Track Methane Emissions From Space and Pinpoint Their Sources With A.I.

The mission, set to launch next month, comes as countries and fossil fuel companies pledge to reduce emissions of the powerful greenhouse gas

A horse grazing in a field with flames from a flaring pit visible in the background
Natural gas flaring emits methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. The majority of atmospheric methane comes from human activity, with the agricultural sector and the oil and gas sector contributing the most from human activities. Orjan F. Ellingvag / Corbis via Getty Images

A satellite to locate and measure methane emissions from the oil and gas sector and other sources is slated to launch to space next month.

Called MethaneSAT, the mission is developed and funded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit environmental organization. In a blog post last week, Google announced that it will use artificial intelligence to create a map of oil and gas infrastructure that will help determine the sources of methane emissions.

About 30 percent of global warming since the industrial revolution can be attributed to methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. The new collaboration aims to track both specific point sources of methane emissions and broader dispersed sources, as well as emission rates and how emissions of the gas are changing over time.

“We’re effectively putting on a really high-quality set of glasses, allowing us to look at the Earth and these emissions with a sharpness that we’ve never had before,” Steve Hamburg, chief scientist and MethaneSAT project lead at EDF, said in a call with reporters, per MIT Technology Review’s James O’Donnell.

An artist's rendition of a satellite orbiting Earth
An artist's rendition of the satellite for tracking methane emissions, which is set to launch in March. MethaneSAT LLC

Methane is one of the greenhouse gases that have contributed the most to global warming, second only to carbon dioxide. Methane actually traps more heat than carbon dioxide does, according to NASA, but it only lasts 7 to 12 years in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, on the other hand, can last for centuries.

Around 60 percent of methane emissions come from human activities, including agriculture, fossil fuels and landfills. Over the past 200 years, the amount of methane in the atmosphere has doubled, per NASA.

Since methane doesn’t last long in the atmosphere, reducing emissions of this gas can quickly have a cooling effect. Methane “is our most powerful opportunity to reduce warming in the near term, because the moment we cut emissions, we can reduce its warming impact,” Ilissa Ocko, an EDF senior climate scientist, says in a video on the MethaneSAT website.

The oil and gas sector is the second-largest source of human methane emissions, behind agriculture. But governments may also be underestimating oil and gas’s contributions—research in 2018 found that the oil and gas supply chain contributes 60 percent more methane emissions than the Environmental Protection Agency had estimated.

Dozens of oil and gas operators pledged to nearly eliminate methane leaks by 2030 at the recent COP28 climate summit, according to Reuters. The Biden administration also announced new standards for reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas industry at the conference.

But “the hardest step” in reducing methane emissions is identifying their individual sources, Ocko says in the video.

“The missing link is the data to show not only the magnitude of emissions, but also where these emissions are coming from,” adds Mark Brownstein, EDF’s senior vice president, energy transition, in the video.

MethaneSAT aims to provide that missing link. The satellite will orbit Earth 15 times a day from more than 350 miles above the surface. There, it will track emissions from oil and gas operations around the world, both identifying emissions from large sources and aggregating emissions from smaller sources. It will also seek to quantify emissions from sectors such as agriculture.

Just as Google uses A.I. to identify sidewalks, street signs and road names in Google Maps, the company will use an image detection algorithm to locate infrastructure like oil containers. It will combine this information with the EDF’s emissions data to pinpoint sources of methane.

“Once those maps are lined up, we expect people will be able to have a far better understanding of the types of machinery that contribute most to methane leaks,” Yael Maguire, vice president of geosustainability at Google, said on the call with reporters, per MIT Technology Review.

“We think this information is incredibly valuable for energy companies, researchers and the public sector to anticipate and mitigate methane emissions in components that are generally most susceptible,” Maguire added, per Reuters.

Scientists from Harvard University, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics partnered with EDF and Google to create the algorithms for the satellite.

The data gathered by MethaneSAT will be publicly available. Still, governments and corporations will need to act on the information for it to make a difference in emissions.

Rob Jackson, an environmental scientist at Stanford University, tells MIT Technology Review that while better data could put pressure on companies to respond, he’s “not confident that simply having this information will mean that companies and countries will switch off methane leaks like a light switch.”

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