Climate Change

NASA spots 50 methane super-emitters on Earth

Most of these sites have ties with agriculture and fossil fuel industries

By Arya Rohini
Published: Monday 31 October 2022
A dust plume over the eastern Mediterranean. Photo: NASA

A powerful eye in the sky has assisted United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) scientists in detecting methane in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Scientists have identified more than 50 “super-emitters” of heat-trapping methane gas in central Asia, the west Asia and the southwestern United States, according to a release by NASA October 25, 2022.

Most of these sites have ties with agriculture and fossil fuel industries.

“Reining in methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a press release.

This exciting new development will help researchers better pinpoint methane leaks and provide insight on how they can be addressed quickly, Nelson added.

NASA Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation instrument, often known as EMIT, is the instrument which assisted the scientists shape the conclusion.

EMIT is originally designed to examine how dust impacts climate.

“But it has demonstrated another crucial capability — detecting the presence of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” officials from NASA announced.

EMIT located a plume in the Permian Basin, New Mexico. It was roughly 3.3 kilometres long. The Permian, one of the world’s biggest oilfields, extends across portions of southern New Mexico and western Texas.

In Turkmenistan, EMIT identified 12 plumes from oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea port of Hazar. Some plumes spanned more than 32 kilometres.

Methane is an 80 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It accounts for a small portion of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide. But it is thought to be 80 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat in the 20 years following its release.

Methane stays in the atmosphere for only ten years, unlike CO2, which persists for hundreds or thousands of years.

This indicates that a significant decrease in methane emissions might sharply reduce anticipated global warming by the middle of the century.
Furthermore, it would support the Paris Agreement’s aim of limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5°C.

“Some of the plumes EMIT detected are among the largest ever seen — unlike anything that has ever been observed from space,” said Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in a press release.

EMIT was installed on the International Space Station in July.

Since then, it has been mapping the chemical composition of dust throughout the Earth’s deserts. It can focus on areas as small as a football ground.

“EMIT is proving to be a critical tool in our toolbox to measure this potent greenhouse gas — and stop it at the source,” said Nelson.

The International Space Station and NASA’s more than two dozen satellites and instruments in space have long been invaluable in determining changes to the Earth’s climate, he added.

EMIT was designed to map the surface composition of minerals in the Earth’s dust-producing regions. But its ability to spot methane as well is a lucky coincidence. The mission’s study area overlaps with major global methane hotspots.

Nearly 30 per cent of the current global temperature rise can be attributed to methane.

As it continues to survey the planet, EMIT will observe places in which no one thought to look for greenhouse-gas emitters before, and it will find plumes that no one expects, said Robert Green, EMIT’s principal investigator at JPL.

“What we’ve found in just a short time already exceeds our expectations,” Thrope added.

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