NASA maps 50 methane ‘super-emitters’ using ISS dust sensor

Instruments on the International Space Station to examine Earth’s atmospheric dust have proven to serve another useful purpose: to detect airborne methane plumes contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

NASA’s Earth surface Mineral dust source InvesTigation (EMIT…seriously?) mission was installed on the ISS in July to measure mineral dust in the Earth’s atmosphere. American space scientists discovered that the equipment could also track methane emissions and since then they have managed to identify 50 “super emitters”, usually operations in the fossil fuel, waste and energy sectors. agriculture that emit methane at high rates around the world.

“It turns out that methane also has a spectral signature in the same wavelength range [of the instrument]and that’s what allowed us to be sensitive to methane,” EMIT principal investigator Robert Green of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) said at a press conference this week.

A methane plume over Carlsbad, NM detected by NASA… Source: NASA

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that has the ability to trap up to 80 times the heat of carbon dioxide, another greenhouse gas, NASA said. However, unlike carbon dioxide, which can potentially linger in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of years, methane dissipates in about a decade, so cutting its emissions now could go a long way toward mitigating climate change in the short term. term.

“Controlling methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. “EMIT is proving to be an essential tool in our toolbox for measuring this powerful greenhouse gas – and stopping it at the source.”

EMIT uses an imaging spectrometer, which measures changes in light reflections to determine the molecular content of the atmosphere. Similar equipment has been used in other NASA missions, including the James Webb Space Telescope, which is equipped with a spectrograph powerful enough to detect carbon dioxide on an exoplanet.

Pointed at Earth, a spectrograph such as EMIT is capable of doing many things, such as studying dust plumes, which NASA says also have the ability to cool or warm the planet. EMIT focuses on determining which dusty regions of the Earth are rich in iron particles or clay dust, which tend to trap and repel heat, respectively. With this knowledge, NASA hopes to learn more about the effect of dust on climate change.

Greenhouse gases are a little more of a concern, however, especially in light of reports that we are far from meeting emission reduction targets and that emissions are rising sharply.


Methane plumes near Tehran, Iran

Andrew Thorpe, a NASA research technologist at JPL who leads the EMIT methane project, said the methane plumes detected by EMIT are among the largest ever seen. “What we’ve found in such a short time is already exceeding our expectations,” Thorpe said.

NASA provided some examples of the massive clouds it has detected, such as 12 methane plumes in Turkmenistan that stretch more than 20 miles (32 km). Another plume at a waste treatment facility south of Tehran, Iran, emits a plume 4.8 km long.

In the United States, a two-mile (3.2 km) plume was spotted near Carlsbad, New Mexico, at the edge of the Permian Basin oil field. Together, the releases from the three sites emit approximately 77 metric tons of methane per hour. The International Energy Agency estimates that the energy sector alone emits around 135 million tonnes of methane per year.

In January, the Biden administration announced the US Methane Emissions Reduction Action Plan, which would provide funds to plug old wells, as well as help to minimize leaking pipes, reduce emissions from cows meat and dairy products, improve emissions monitoring and reuse old fossil fuels. infrastructure for new use.

The US government said the action plan aims to reduce global methane emissions by 30% by 2030, which is not enough to meet the reduction needs of recent emissions forecasts.

Nelson said the agency wanted to help stop methane emissions at their sources, but NASA did not name any of the groups that may have been responsible for the massive plumes, even in New Mexico where the US government has the capacity. to intervene. ®

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