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NASA Images Show The Methane ‘Hotspot’ In The USA

‘The Four Corners’ in US Southwest have high emissions

By: Sasha Sutton  |@SashaEricaS
 on 10th October 2014 @ 11.31am
the red zones on the map show high readings of methane emissions in the  four corners   southwest usa © NASA/Twitter
The red zones on the map show high readings of methane emissions in the 'Four Corners', Southwest USA

NASA satellite images have recently picked up a small hotspot of methane emissions in southwest USA. The zone, near the ‘Four Corners’ intersection of the states of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah is reportedly responsible for producing the highest concentration of the greenhouse gas ever seen in the country.

The Daily Mail reports that between 2003 and 2009, 0.59 million metric tons of methane was released into the atmosphere each year – 3.5 times the amount estimated by the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR).

NASA scientists first spotted the high emissions four years ago in the European Space Agency’s SCIAMACHY (Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography) data but at first thought it may have just been an anomaly or data error.

“We didn’t focus on it because we weren’t sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error”, explained Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) research scientist Christian Frankenberg in a NASA press release.

“Satellite data cannot be as accurate as ground-based estimates, but from space, there are no hiding places”, he added. The emissions were later validated by a ground station operated by the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos Laboratory, New Mexico.

Methane makes up 95 to 98 per cent of natural gas and is leaks are hard to detect without specialist scientific equipment as the gas is colourless and odourless.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), although methane is emitted from natural sources such as wetlands, it is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted from human activities such as farming, raising livestock, landfills and fracking. Emission of the gas is attributed to global warming as, although it is less prevalent than carbon dioxide, it is more efficient at trapping heat and radiation.

Last year the Harvard Gazette reported that total methane emissions in USA appeared to be 1.5 to 1.7 times higher than previously estimated by the EPA and EDGAR, accounting for nearly 10 per cent of domestic greenhouse gas emissions.

But lead author of the study Eric Kort, from the University of Michigan, noted that the emissions recorded in the Four Corners region actually predate fracking processes, however may have been the result of natural gas production industries that the industry should be scrutinised as a whole.

the four corners generating station  a coal fired power plant © DOE/Los Alamos Laboratory
The Four Corners Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant

“There’s been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole”, said Kort.

“The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried”.

One explanation of the high emissions that NASA is looking into is coalbed methane, which seeps from the pores and cracks within coal, causing hazardous and potentially fatal explosions when mixed with oxygen in underground coal mines each year. Extracting the highly-combustible gas from coal and using it for fuel became prominent after the 1970s US energy crisis and by 2012, supplied more than 8 per cent of natural gas in the US. The Four Corners region is home to a coal-fired power plant in New Mexico, known as the Four Corners Generating Station, and is one of the most active coalbed methane production sites in the country.

obama announces strategies against climate change at un summit © YouTube
Obama announces strategies against climate change at UN Summit

Environmental groups have pushed President Obama to regulate methane emissions as a result, and he announced new strategies to reduce the pollution that is causing climate change, under his Climate Action Plan.

Obama said at the UN Climate Summit, "The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it. The alarm bells keep ringing, we cannot pretend we can't hear them".

"Nobody can stand on the sidelines on this issue". 

Contact author Sasha Sutton:

Google Plus: Sasha Sutton

tags: Methane | America

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