Using a tool designed to study how dust affects the climate, scientists from the United States Aerospace Agency (NASA) have identified more than 50 points around the world that emit significant levels of methane, a development that could help combat the powerful greenhouse gas.
“Curbing methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release on Tuesday. “This exciting new development will not only help researchers better identify where methane leaks are coming from, but also provide insights into how they can be addressed, quickly.”
NASA said its Investigation of the Source of Mineral Dust on the Earth’s Surface (EMIT) is designed to further understand the effects of airborne dust on climate. But EMIT, which was installed on the International Space Station in July and can focus on areas as small as a football field, has also shown the ability to detect the presence of methane.
Dozens of super emitters
NASA said that so far more than 50 “super-emitters” of methane gas have been identified in Central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States. Most of them are related to the fossil fuel, waste or agriculture sectors. Kate Calvin, chief scientist and senior climate adviser at NASA, said EMIT’s “additional methane detection capability offers a remarkable opportunity to measure and monitor greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”
Methane is responsible for about 30 per cent of the global rise in temperatures to date.
While it is much less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, it is about 28 times more potent as a greenhouse gas on a century-time scale. Over a 20-year period, it is 80 times more powerful. Methane stays in the atmosphere for only a decade, compared to hundreds or thousands of years for CO2.
This means that a sharp cut in emissions could remove several tenths of a degree Celsius of projected global warming by mid-century, helping to keep alive the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the average Earth temperature rise to 1 .5 °C, according to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Huge climate potential
EMIT will potentially find hundreds of super emitters, some of them previously detected through aerial, space, or ground-based measurements, and others that were previously unknown,” NASA said. Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is leading EMIT’s methane effort, said some of the methane plumes detected by EMIT are among the largest ever seen. “What we have found in a short time already exceeds our expectations,” said Thorpe.
NASA said a plume of methane about two miles (3.3 kilometres) long was detected southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin, one of the world’s largest oil fields. He said 12 columns of oil and gas infrastructure have been identified in Turkmenistan, east of the Caspian Sea port city of Hazar. A plume of methane at least three miles (4.8 kilometres) long was detected south of Tehran from a major waste processing complex, NASA said.
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