Using a tool designed to study how dust affects the climate, NASA has identified more than 50 methane-emitting hotspots around the world, a development that could help combat the powerful greenhouse gas.
NASA said Tuesday that its Survey of Earth’s Surface Mineral Dust Sources (EMIT) has identified more than 50 methane “superemitters” in Central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States since it was installed aboard the International Space Station in July .
EMIT orbits Earth every 90 minutes from its perch aboard the space station at an altitude of about 400 km (250 miles), and is capable of scanning vast swaths of the planet tens of kilometers in diameter while focusing on areas as small as a football field.
The instrument, called an imaging spectrometer, was built primarily to identify the mineral composition of dust blown into Earth’s atmosphere from deserts and other arid regions, but it has proven adept at detecting large emissions of methane.
“Some of the [methane] plumes detected by EMIT are among the largest ever observed — unlike anything ever observed from space,” said Andrew Thorpe, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) research technologist who led the methane study.
The newly measured methane hotspots—some previously known and others just discovered—include sprawling oil and gas facilities and large landfills. Methane is responsible for about 30 percent of the global temperature rise to date.
“Cutting methane emissions is the key to curbing global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement, adding that the tool will help “pinpoint” methane superemitters so they can be stopped “at the source.”
Examples of newly formed methane superemitters unveiled by JPL on Tuesday included a cluster of 12 plumes from oil and gas infrastructure in Turkmenistan, with some plumes stretching more than 32 km (20 miles).
Scientists estimate that the Turkmenistan plumes collectively spew methane at a rate of 50,400 kg (111,000 lb) per hour, rivaling the peak flow from the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas field explosion near Los Angeles, which ranks among the largest accidental methane releases in US history.
Two other large emitters were an oil field in New Mexico and a waste processing complex in Iran, which together emit nearly 29,000 kg (60,000 lb) of methane per hour. The methane plume south of the Iranian capital Tehran was at least 4.8 km (3 miles) long.
JPL officials said none of these sites were previously known to scientists.
“As the exploration of the planet continues, EMIT will observe places where no one has thought to look for greenhouse gas emitters before, and find plumes that no one expects,” said Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator at JPL. claim.
Methane, a byproduct of decaying organic material and a major component of natural gas used in power plants, accounts for a fraction of all human-caused greenhouse emissions, but has about 80 times the pound-for-pound ability to trap heat than carbon dioxide. .
Compared to CO2, which persists in the atmosphere for centuries, methane only persists for about ten years, meaning that reducing methane emissions has a more immediate effect on the warming of the planet.