A Third of California's Methane Is Directly Derived from a Handful of 'Super-Emitters'

NASA is working alongside the U.S. state to find the origins of these methane emitters.
Fabienne Lang

Like carbon dioxide, methane also holds heat in our atmosphere. Large amounts of methane can lead to significant environmental issues, like global warming.

NASA scientists and the state of California have been using an airborne sensor to depict where methane is being emitted from throughout the western American state. The team has discovered that a third of all methane emissions are coming from just a handful of 'super-emitters.'

From this discovery, scientists and engineers can work together to lower these harmful emissions. 


The importance of finding methane hotspots

The scientists working on the project have deduced that most of the methane emissions in California are coming from industrial facilities. These include oil and gas fields, large dairies, and landfills. 

The state has been working hard at trying to find methods to lower methane emissions. Pinpointing these zones will assist in their arduous task. 

Co-author and lead scientist of the study, Riley Duren, an engineer at the University of Arizona and a NASA scientist, said: "A small number of super-emitters contribute disproportionately, and that suggests some low-hanging fruit."

So the potential of lowering these emissions in California appears to be a possibility. 

How did the team discover the 'super-emitters'?

Over a two-year period, the team flew over the state with Airborne Visible InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer - Next Generation (AVIRIS-NG) instruments. These were flown over 300,000 facilities. 

The equipment can pick up methane in astonishing detail. Every pixel depicted from the instruments covered a three-meter (10 foot) wide area, which enabled the scientists to pick up usually undetectable plumes of methane. 

A Third of California's Methane Is Directly Derived from a Handful of 'Super-Emitters'
Methane Source Finder. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From their research, 550 individual point sources were discovered. Ten percent of these sources contributed to the majority of the methane emissions — these are the 'super-emitters.'

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A Third of California's Methane Is Directly Derived from a Handful of 'Super-Emitters'
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

From their readings, the team concluded that a third of California's methane budget is coming from these sources.

What will scientists do with this data?

The information the sensor collected will assist facility operators in correcting and identifying problems, which in turn will lower methane emissions in the state. 

"These findings illustrate the importance of monitoring point sources across multiple sectors [of the economy] and broad regions, both for improved understanding of methane budgets and to support emission mitigation efforts," said Duren.

A Third of California's Methane Is Directly Derived from a Handful of 'Super-Emitters'
NASA's methane detector system. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

For instance, with this new information, facility operators can check for any methane leaks that may be contributing to larger amounts of methane emissions.

"This new remote-sensing technology addresses the continuing need for detailed, high-quality data about methane," said California Air Resources Board Chair Mary D. Nichols. "It will help us and the Energy Commission develop the best strategies for capturing this highly potent greenhouse gas."

The study was published this week in the journal Nature.