March 20, 2023
A cloud of dust over the eastern Mediterranean.  Photo: NASA

NASA detects 50 methane over-emissions on Earth

A cloud of dust over the eastern Mediterranean. Photo: NASA

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

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

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

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

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

NASA’s Earth Surface Mineral Dust Investigation Instrument, often known as EMIT, is the instrument that helped scientists form the conclusion.

EMIT was originally designed to examine how dust affects the climate.

“But it has demonstrated another critical capability – detecting the presence of methane, a potent greenhouse gas,” NASA officials said.

EMIT detected a plume in the Permian Basin, New Mexico. It was about 3.3 kilometers long. The Permian, one of the largest oil fields in the world, spans parts of southern New Mexico and western Texas.

In Turkmenistan, EMIT identified 12 plumes of oil and gas infrastructure in the Caspian Sea port of Khazar. Some plumes extended over 20 miles.

Methane is 80 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. It accounts for a small fraction of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions compared to carbon dioxide. But it is believed to be 80 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping atmospheric heat in the 20 years after it is released.

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

This shows that a significant reduction in methane emissions can sharply reduce expected global warming by mid-century.
In addition, it would support the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global average temperature increase to 1.5°C.

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

EMIT was installed on the International Space Station in July.

Since then, he has been mapping the chemical composition of dust in all of Earth’s deserts. It can focus on areas as small as a football field.

“EMIT is proving to be a critical tool in our toolbox for measuring this powerful greenhouse gas — and stopping it at the source,” Nelson said.

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

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

Nearly 30 percent of current global warming can be attributed to methane.

As it continues to survey the planet, EMIT will notice places no one thought to look for greenhouse gas emissions before, and find plumes no one expects, said Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator at JPL.

“What we found in a short period of time already exceeds our expectations,” Thrope added.

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