New NASA instrument helps spot methane ‘super-emissions’ on Earth from Space

Anew NASA instrument has made it possible to detect from space dozens of sources of “hyper-emitting” methane on Earth , and scientists hope that this function will allow action to be taken to limit emissions of this gas that is a major contributor to climate change.

These “over-emitting” sources are generally facilities associated with the fossil fuel, waste processing or even agricultural sectors.

This device, called EMIT, was launched into space in July and placed on the International Space Station, originally intended to observe how the movement of mineral dust affects the climate.

But the tool also proved useful for another important purpose: It allowed the identification of more than 50 sources of “hyper-emitting” methane in central Asia, the Middle East and the southwestern United States, NASA announced Tuesday.

This operation “will not only help scientists better identify where methane leaks are coming from, but also help us understand how we can deal with them quickly,” noted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.

Some of the clouds spotted “are among the largest ever seen,” Andrew Thorpe of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) also said in a statement. “What we have found in such a short time is already beyond what we could have imagined,” he noted.

In Turkmenistan, this instrument detected 12 clouds of gas and oil infrastructure east of the port city of Khazar. Heading west, some of these clouds extend more than 20 miles (32 km).

In the US state of New Mexico, another plume about 3.3 kilometers long was spotted above one of the largest oil fields in the world.

In Iran, south of Tehran, a plume of at least 4.8 km was observed, originating from a waste processing complex. Litter can be a significant source of methane, as it is released during decomposition.

Scientists estimate that these three facilities emit respectively 50,400, 18,300 and 8,500 kilograms of methane per hour.

EMIT is “the first of a new generation of imaging spectrographs aimed at observing the Earth,” NASA emphasized, although methods for detecting methane leaks via satellites have already been greatly developed in recent years.

Methane is responsible for about 30% of global warming. Although it stays in the atmosphere for much less time than carbon dioxide, it contributes 80 times more to global warming over a 20-year period.

The reduction of methane emissions is therefore considered critical in order to be able to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

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