Satellite monitoring of methane hotspots, and example of Four Corners in USA

Satellites can more accurately locate and measure methane gas as it routinely is emitted, or as it escapes from drilling rigs, compressors and a pipelines where it can forms a giant plume in the air.

Officials with the European Space Agency (ESA) announce that they will in 2015 start an in-depth campaign to monitor the amounts of methane that appear to be missing from Earth’s atmosphere. At the forefront of this investigation will be the Tropospheric Ozone Monitoring Instrument (Tropomi) aboard the ESA Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite, which is scheduled for launch in 2015.

The mission, valued at around €45 million ($62 million), will seek to confirm also if the latest analysis released by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has any merit. The document, a meta-analysis of other methane studies, suggests that the actual amount of gas released into the atmosphere may be between 25 and 75 percent higher than experts estimate. The high-precision Earth observation satellite ESA launches next year will produce data that is sufficiently accurate to either confirm or infirm the results of EPA scientists, and follows multiple other researches suggesting methane emissions may be severely underestimated globally.

In the US,  a permanent methane cloud, so vast that scientists questioned their own data when they first studied it three years ago. “We couldn’t be sure that the signal was real,” said Nasa researcher Christian Frankenberg. The United States’ biggest methane “hot spot”, verified by Nasa and University of Michigan scientists in October 2014, is only the most dramatic example of what scientists describe as a $2bn leak problem: the loss of methane from energy production sites. When oil, gas or coal are taken from the ground, a little methane – the main ingredient in natural gas – often escapes along with it, drifting into the atmosphere where it contributes to the warming of the Earth.

For example, methane accounts for about 9% of US greenhouse gas emissions, and the biggest single source of it – nearly 30% – is the oil and gas industry, US government figures show.

One small “hot spot” in the U.S. Southwest is responsible for producing the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States – more than triple the standard ground-based estimate — according to a new study of satellite data by scientists at NASA and the University of Michigan.

Methane is very efficient at trapping heat in the atmosphere and, like carbon dioxide, it contributes to global warming. The hot spot, near the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, covers only about 2,500 square miles (6,500 square kilometers), or half the size of Connecticut.


The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher). Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

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