Last October, scientists bumped into a mysterious 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane floating in the air above the Southwest U.S. This methane “hot spot” was located around the Four Corners intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah and had the highest concentration of methane in all of the United States.
However, this wasn’t the first time scientists had noticed the unusual phenomenon. From 2002 to 2012, researchers had been gathering atmospheric data from satellite measurements collected over the United States by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) instrument. The bright red patch presented in NASA a map over the Four Corners was there the entire time of the study, but the results were so extreme that scientists decided to wait a few years before starting a detailed investigation.
So last year, scientists at the University of Michigan and NASA used SCIAMACHY images to analyze this huge concentration of methane. They came across the biggest concentration of methane in the U.S. – more than triple the standard ground-based estimate.
Methane is naturally present in Earth’s atmosphere. Its concentrations are of great interest due to methane’s impact on climate change, as it is one of the most potent heat-trapping gases. Most people believe that only CO2 is responsible for global warming, but methane is important contributor as well. It is the third most abundant greenhouse gas and traps more heat than CO2.
NASA, with the contribution of researchers from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in Boulder, Colorado, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the University of Michigan is trying to get deeper into the mystery of increased methane concentration. So, they are using a suite of airborne and ground-based instruments that will yield more detailed data than satellite observations.
“With all the ground-based and airborne resources that the different groups are bringing to the region, we have the unique chance to unequivocally solve the Four Corners mystery,” Christian Frankenberg, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a news release.
Two high tech spectrometers are used in the battle to solve the mystery from air. The Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (HyTES), with the combination of a Next-Generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRISng), is able not only to make highly sensitive measurements of methane concentrations, but to indicate various methane levels depending on the altitude, too. In that way, scientists will be capable of identifying individual sources of methane emissions.
According to the EPA, in 2013, CH4 accounted for about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities. Most of the anthropogenic contributions come from landfills, manure management, and leaks of natural gas into the atmosphere during coal mining, storage, transportation, and distribution. Methane is also emitted by natural sources such as wetlands, termites, natural-gas pipelines, deep-sea vents, and even damming beavers.
NASA scientists assume that the leaks are coming from a coalbed methane extraction; a process of getting natural gas from underground coal beds, instead of fracking, since the data analyzed is from 2003-2009, before the fracking boom.
“If we can verify the methane detected by the satellite and identify its sources, decision-makers will have critical information for any actions they are considering,” pointed one of the scientists, Gabrielle Pétron.
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