NASA spies more than 50 greenhouse gases from the International Space Station

In April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that 2021 saw a record increase in atmospheric methane – a harmful greenhouse gas known to contribute to global warming and thus all the devastating consequences that come with it.

Consequences such as hurricanes and severe floods destroy people’s homes and lead to massive amounts of death. Like wildfires that destroy entire towns and increase the risk of cancer.

What is remarkable is that this is distinguished Second Year Respectively, there has been such a huge rise in methane since scientists started tracking levels of the chemicals in 1983. To make matters worse, the ominous pattern stems from the fact that fossil fuel production, biomass burning, improper waste management etc. Human activities produce a lot of methane – but these activities are increasing worldwide.

In other words, the way we burn coal for energy and develop massive landfills to store our waste is the crux of the problem.

To figure out where, exactly, our methane emissions are coming from — so we can try to plug the largest sources — NASA has reassigned a mission to the International Space Station to look down on Earth and identify methane hotspots on our planet.

Called the Investigative Source of Mineral Dust on Earth’s Surface — named for its original function of studying how dust affects our climate — but also known as EMIT, the endeavor has discovered more than 50 of what NASA calls “super emitters” of methane. These ultra-high emissions consist of facilities, equipment, and other man-made infrastructure associated with fossil fuels, waste, and agro-industries.

NASA stated that “the new observations stem from the extensive coverage of the planet provided by the space station’s orbit, as well as from EMIT’s ability to survey areas of the Earth’s surface tens of miles wide while resolving areas as small as a football field.”

A graph showing how fossil fuel consumption has risen globally since 1800. It's a very exponential increase, peaking in 2021.

Our world in data

Scientists in the EMIT program essentially took the mission’s spectroscopic data, which reveals chemical fingerprints of specific molecules on Earth from a bird’s eye view, and extracted clues about the methane signature. As it turns out, methane falls within the spectral range for which EMIT is calibrated, so the conclusion occurred naturally.

“We were eager to see how EMIT’s mineral data will improve climate modeling,” Kate Calvin, NASA’s chief scientist and senior climate advisor, said in a statement. “This additional ability to detect methane provides a fantastic opportunity to measure and monitor the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.”

methane culprits on earth

In all, EMIT data found more than fifteen sources of ultra-high emissions in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the southwestern United States.

Mission instruments, for example, discovered a plume of methane about two miles (3.3 kilometers) southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin. This region probably includes one of the largest oil fields in the world, extending from that part of New Mexico to West Texas. At this site, the team estimated, an astonishing flow rate of methane was about 40,300 pounds (18,300 kilograms) per hour.

Near Tehran, Iran, a methane plume stretched across at least 3 miles of landscape near a major landfill. This spot appears to indicate a flow rate of 111,000 lb (50,400 kg) per hour.

On the Google Maps screen, a purple, yellow, and orange dot represents where methane was discovered in Turkmenistan

East Hazar, Turkmenistan, a port city on the Caspian Sea, 12 columns of methane gas flow towards the west.


In Turkmenistan, EMIT discovered 12 separate plumes coming from oil and gas facilities east of the Caspian coastal city of Hazar, the agency said. As the winds blew to the west, some puffs of methane extended over 20 miles. This location, according to a NASA press release, revealed a flow rate of 18,700 pounds per hour.

“Some of the plumes discovered by EMIT are among the largest ever observed — unlike anything ever observed from space,” Andrew Thorpe, a NASA research technician who leads the EMIT methane effort, said in a statement. “What we found in such a short time actually exceeds our expectations.”

And that only scratches the surface of what the team has found — as well as what it could find in the future.

On the Google Maps screen, a purple, yellow, and orange dot marks where methane was discovered near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

This image shows a 2-mile (3 km) long methane plume that was discovered southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico.


Now that it’s proven strong with areas known to produce a lot of methane, EMIT is set to monitor places no one thought to be looking for greenhouse gas emitters before, and to find plumes we might not expect. Hopefully, it will reveal some of the secret culprits of global warming.

Or, as NASA puts it, “With extensive and frequent coverage from its privileged position on the space station, EMIT will likely find hundreds of super-emitters — some previously observed by atmospheric, space-based, or ground-based measurement, and others unknown.”

“Reducing methane emissions is key to limiting global warming,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “This exciting new development will not only help researchers better identify the source of the methane leak, but will also provide insight into how to address it — quickly.” a permit.

In the future, the mission’s spectrometer may also look for other greenhouse gases: the footprint of carbon dioxide—another human-produced chemical that warms our planet—is within the EMIT wavelength range as well.

“These results are exceptional, and they demonstrate the value of pairing global perspective with the resolution required to identify point sources of methane, down to the scale of the facility,” said David Thompson, EMIT Instrument Scientist and NASA’s Chief Research Scientist. statement.

“It is a unique capability that will scale up efforts to identify sources of methane and reduce emissions from human activities.”

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