New NASA instrument detects ‘super emitters’ of methane from space

The Earth’s Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) has identified more than 50 methane hotspots around the world.

Using an instrument designed to study how dust affects climate, NASA scientists have identified more than 50 methane emitting hotspots around the world, a development that could help combat the powerful greenhouse gas.

NASA said Tuesday that an investigation into the source of Earth’s Surface Mineral Dust (EMIT) has identified more than 50 “super emitters” of methane in Central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States since their installation in July aboard the International Space Station.

Newly measured methane hotspots – some previously known, others recently discovered – include sprawling oil and gas facilities and large landfill sites. Methane is responsible for nearly 30 percent of global warming to date.

“Curbing methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement, adding that the tool would help “identify” the sources of ultra-high methane emissions so that these emissions can be stopped “at the source.”

Orbiting the Earth every 90 minutes from its position aboard the space station about 400 kilometers (250 miles) high, EMIT is able to survey vast swaths of the planet across tens of kilometers while also focusing on areas as small as a football field.

The instrument, called the Imaging Spectrometer, is primarily designed to determine the mineral composition of dust blown into Earth’s atmosphere from deserts and other arid regions, but it has proven adept at detecting large methane emissions.

“A little bit of the [methane] The plumes discovered by EMIT are among the largest ever observed — unlike anything ever observed from space, said Andrew Thorpe, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) research technician who leads the methane studies.

An example of the newly photographed super methane emitters shown by JPL on Tuesday is a cluster of 12 plumes from Turkmenistan’s oil and gas infrastructure, some of which span more than 32 kilometers (20 miles).

Scientists estimate that Turkmenistan’s plumes are collectively releasing methane at a rate of 50,400 kg (111,000 lb) per hour, rivaling peak flow from the 2015 Aliso Canyon gas field explosion near Los Angeles that ranks as one of the largest accidental methane emissions in US history.

Two other big sources of emissions were an oil field in New Mexico and a waste treatment complex in Iran, emitting roughly 29,000 kilograms (60,000 pounds) of methane per hour combined. The methane column south of the Iranian capital, Tehran, was at least 4.8 kilometers (3 miles) long.

JPL officials said that neither site was previously known to scientists.

JPL’s EMIT Lab principal investigator Robert Greene said in a statement.

A byproduct of decomposing organic matter and a major component of natural gas used in power plants, methane accounts for a fraction of all human-caused greenhouse emissions, but it has about 80 times the pound-for-pound heat retention capacity of carbon dioxide.

Compared to carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for centuries, methane only lasts for a decade, which means the reduction in methane emissions has an immediate effect on global warming.


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