Environment

NASA satellite snaps the first methane leak detected from space

The leak at Aliso Canyon led to more than 100,000 tons of methane being belched into the atmosphere
The leak at Aliso Canyon led to more than 100,000 tons of methane being belched into the atmosphere
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Comparison of detected methane plumes over Aliso Canyon, California, acquired 11 days apart in Jan. 2016. On the left, as captured by NASA's AVIRIS NASA ER-2 aircraft and on the right by the Hyperion instrument on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit.
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Comparison of detected methane plumes over Aliso Canyon, California, acquired 11 days apart in Jan. 2016. On the left, as captured by NASA's AVIRIS NASA ER-2 aircraft and on the right by the Hyperion instrument on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit.
The leak at Aliso Canyon led to more than 100,000 tons of methane being belched into the atmosphere
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The leak at Aliso Canyon led to more than 100,000 tons of methane being belched into the atmosphere

Methane's concentration in the atmosphere might be outweighed and outlasted by the more bountiful CO2, but this greenhouse gas is perfectly capable of doing some damage while it's up there. Due to its superior radiation-trapping abilities, methane presents a much more potent threat to the climate than CO2 does pound-for-pound, so monitoring the source of methane emissions is therefore pretty important. And it looks like we might have a new tool at our disposal, with NASA announcing the first observation of a single methane leak on our planet's surface from an Earth-orbiting spacecraft.

In October 2015, workers at the Aliso Canyon gas facility discovered a massive leak stemming from one of the site's wells. The disaster spewed more than 100,000 tons of methane into the atmosphere before it could be plugged the following February, with researchers estimating the impact to the climate to be equivalent to the annual emissions from half a million cars.

While all this was happening, NASA's Earth Observing (EO-1) satellite was floating somewhere overhead in low-Earth orbit, as it had done since launching in 2000. EO-1 was only scheduled to fly for one year with its primary mission to demonstrate new land-imaging instruments, one of which was the first-of-its kind Hyperion spectrometer capable of showing the land-surface in more than 220 spectral colors.

As part of an investigation into the gas leak, NASA scientists had EO-1 direct its gaze toward the Aliso Canyon site, where Hyperion detected the plumes of methane belching from the site on three separate overpasses during the winter of 2015-16. These observations were backed up by measurements taken a little closer to Earth, aboard NASA's ER-2 aircraft carrying the agency's Airborne/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer.

Comparison of detected methane plumes over Aliso Canyon, California, acquired 11 days apart in Jan. 2016. On the left, as captured by NASA's AVIRIS NASA ER-2 aircraft and on the right by the Hyperion instrument on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit.
Comparison of detected methane plumes over Aliso Canyon, California, acquired 11 days apart in Jan. 2016. On the left, as captured by NASA's AVIRIS NASA ER-2 aircraft and on the right by the Hyperion instrument on NASA's Earth Observing-1 satellite in low-Earth orbit.

"This is the first time the methane emissions from a single facility have been observed from space," says David R. Thompson, research scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The percentage of atmospheric methane produced through human activities remains poorly understood. Future instruments with much greater sensitivity on orbiting satellites can help resolve this question by surveying the biggest sources around the world, so that we can better understand and address this unknown factor in greenhouse gas emissions."

With its significant supply of Earth-facing satellites and aircraft, NASA has emerged as an important resource for monitoring the planet's health in the face of a changing climate. From revealing how mounting CO2 is turning the globe an undesirable shade of green to picking up on undetected sources of dangerous toxic sulfur dioxide emissions, the work of NASA mightn't be as important in getting us to Mars as it is in one day preventing a forced migration.

Source: NASA

7 comments
Kaiser Derden
Methane's concentration in the atmosphere might be outweighed and outlasted by the more bountiful CO2 and they are both dwarfed by the much more bountiful water vapor ... "Due to its superior radiation-trapping abilities" ??? it doesn't "trap radiation" it absorbs it and then re-emits it ... it slows it down, not traps it ... "NASA has emerged as an important resource for monitoring the planet's health in the face of a changing climate. " Of course the climate is changing ... it has never stopped changing and never will ... your implication is that it is changing for the worse and that is simply not true ...
BillKitsch
By extracting very light gas (compared to air) by the trillions of cubic feet (14-23 tcf projected from Marcellas shale in Pennsylvania alone) from a single gargantuan porous formation 600 miles long, and replacing that buoyant gas with heavyweight liquids, you fundamentally alter the geological, and tectonic dynamics of a vast area of crust. Meaning the pollution factors are almost secondary, because when the earth moves in distances of miles we are on a whole new level. We are at the threshold of a major tectonic shift globally, I believe and of a new epoch.
Doug Nutter
You can bet that there will be comments from the flat earth society who are in denial regarding man's contribution to climate change. Yes, nature alone has brought change, sometimes cataclysmic. The difference lies in the fact that man has the capacity to change destructive behavior. We are just now discovering the mass disinformation pumped out by the likes of Exxon and Pease Coal for decades. Too many people believe the lies and among them are the shills that are paid well to propagate the myth. Too bad that it's so hard to tell the difference.
ChrisBuchanan
I had to check on the math before responding to Bill Kitsch's comments, but there is no meaningful fluid replacement going on in the Marcellus shale development, mainly extraction. An average Marcellus well of 4800' length might be expected to produce 9.6 BCF of gas over it's lifetime. The approximate mass of this gas at subsurface reservoir conditions is equivalent to ~60,000,000 tons. The average total mass of sand and water used to frac the same 4800' well and left behind in the formation, assuming 20% of the water is produced back, and the water used to frac is a partially saline blend of fresh and recycled water, is about 30,000 tons (or about 0.5% of the mass produced). Regardless of how individuals feel about frac'ing, I'm pretty excited that technology has advanced to the point where we might be able to detect pipeline leaks in remote areas, or for instance, to detect storage field leaks after an earthquake long before a reservoir pressure response was noticed at the wellhead.
CharlesTerry
Methane's concentration in the atmosphere might be outweighed and outlasted by the more bountiful CO2, but this greenhouse gas is perfectly capable of doing some damage while it's up there. This is a pure fabrication or fiction. Methane does not persist in our atmosphere the sun beats it up and poof methane is gone. If you require an example of Methane is not persistent. I refer you to the Mars Methane Mystery.
FinsterBookinstock
Just because a molecule contains carbon and is capable of capturing heat energy in a laboratory does not mean it captures heat energy in the atmosphere. There also has to be energy present in the absorbable radiation bands upon which the molecule works for energy capture to be in the equation. That is where and why ambient methane fails to collect energy. It is competing with a vastly more prevalent gas in its limited sphere of influence. Before you permit yourself to get all scare-defied over more methane being released into the atmosphere, and even if you buy into recent (since WWII) surface temperature rise being as a result of increased greenhouse gasses, do your research and find that methane is an irrelevant gas in the theoretical causes because of the limited bands of energy from which it can possibly absorb and from those two bands upon which it can act, it must share that potential with one more prevalent, which has already done the job almost completely in those bands leaving nothing much for methane to work upon. Those who promote gloom & doom from impending release of stores of methane wrongly assume the gas would have unlimited stores of energy upon which it could draw to heat the planet should that release occur. Therein lies the failure of this sub-theory even assuming such release is possible and imminent. There is no such pool of energy. The energy beamed by the sun comes to Earth in the form of short waves, is absorbed by the planet, and some is transmitted back to space in the form of long waves in various bands of energy. Warmists' Anthropogenic Global Warming Theory holds that greenhouse gasses intercept by absorption and transmit back to Earth a percentage of the long wave radiation energy in natural balance until humans destroy the balance by over supplying unnatural amounts of greenhouse gasses by which such process and added heat causes more of the principle greenhouse gas, water vapor, to be produced accelerating the process in an ever heightening loop of heating Gaia. Methane is a "greenhouse gas." The misnamed process acts nothing like a greenhouse, BTW, and empirical measurements, the acid test of science, do not reflect water vapor increasing as required in proportion to CO2 increases or even out of proportion. No increase of water vapor at all in fact has been measured among the several failures of the theory to be sustained by empirical measurement. Methane (CH4) by its physical properties has only two narrow absorption bands at 3.3 microns and 7.5 microns in the overall broad electro-magnetic spectrum from which it can absorb energy. Theoretically, CH4 is 20 times more effective an absorber than CO2 – in those bands in a laboratory. However, CH4 is only 0.00017% (1.7 parts per million) of the atmosphere. Moreover, both of its bands occur at wavelengths where H2O is already absorbing virtually all energy. Because water vapor is much more plentiful in the atmosphere than methane (or any other GHG), H­2O absorbs vastly more energy and is by far the most important greenhouse gas. On any given day, H2O is a percent or two of the atmosphere (1.0-2.0% or 5,882 to 11,764 times as prevalent as methane in the atmosphere, or 5882÷20=294.1 [or 588.4] multiple the absorber as methane); we call that humidity. Hence, any radiation that CH4 might absorb has already been absorbed by H2O in the only radiation bands methane absorbs energy. Once the energy in a band of the spectrum has been sucked dry, no additional absorptive gas can absorb more. Painting a black window another coat will not keep out more light. In other words, the ratio of the percentages of water to methane is such that the effects of CH4 are completely masked by H2O because the absorption of infrared energy in the bands of the spectrum affected by methane has already been saturated by H2O absorption. The amount of CH4 would have to increase 100-fold to make it comparable to H2O and even then it would no longer matter because water vapor has beat it to the punch. There is not much ambient energy in those two little short, stray bands of the radiation spectrum to start with and most of that has already been worked over by H2O from time immemorial leaving only the scraps to poor CH4, which can never effect climate to any appreciable or worrisome amount. Because it absorbs energy in a laboratory does not mean it works that way in a chaotic atmosphere with other agents and processes present. Learn more of what the science neophytes should have investigated before fearing methane, which is an irrelevant greenhouse gas (graphs, observed facts & all that tedious math kind of stuff) — http://wattsupwiththat.com/2014/04/11/methane-the-irrelevant-greenhouse-gas/ http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/01/whit_house_methane_madness.html http://wattsupwiththat.com/2015/10/10/stop-the-devastation-of-peoples-lives-by-speculating-with-no-data-remembering-cattle-and-methane-emissions/ Methane is fine vehicle to instill fear, the politicians greatest ally, on an uninformed populace though. It is the rare person whose knowledge on the substance reaches even the level of understanding the stuff coming from their gas stove is raw methane much less how it works in the atmosphere...easy targets for manipulation.
carbon
The aerial photo from the airplane shows the methane plume. In the satellite photo, NASA has identified the plume, but the image either has considerable noise, or it is showing large numbers of natural sources of methane. Since vegetation produces methane, even in dry areas like this, that is one possible source. Another likely source is natural seepage. The oil industry has used aircraft detection systems to find deep underground gas reservoirs for a long time, since natural gas in deep reservoirs does naturally leak to the surface and to the atmosphere. Many other sources of methane exist in this area, including cattle ranches and a major landfill. The idea that "methane presents a much more potent threat to the climate than CO2 does pound-for-pound" is pretty much nonsense however, since methane has a half-life in the atmosphere of only 7.5 years. Methane is also odorless and non-toxic, and as Finster has explained, is not exactly a potent threat. The offshore natural seeps that exist around Santa Barbara, and offshore Redondo Beach and Santa Monica have been seeping for millennia at rates much greater than the Aliso Canyon leak.