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A high-profile global effort to use satellites to track and halt methane emissions announced its first successful and confirmed mitigation, as governments around the world race to curb releases of the potent greenhouse gas responsible for roughly 30% of the Earth’s warming.
Scientists working for the United Nations’ International Methane Emissions Observatory in March spotted a leak in satellite data in Argentina, and relayed that information to government officials who quickly shared the data with the responsible operator. The energy company, which wasn’t identified, found that a heat exchanger had suffered ruptured tubes causing the potent greenhouse gas to leak and quickly conducted repairs.
“This is the first example of how we really can make this data actionable,’’ Manfredi Caltagirone, the head of IMEO, said in an interview referring to a new wave of satellites that are allowing scientists to track global methane emissions. “It's just the first of what we expect is going to be many use cases that this data and these capabilities will be giving us.’’
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IMEO has made 126 other notifications related to emissions from oil and gas operations globally since March and has observed reductions, although it hasn’t received enough information to verify specific actions taken by operators. The initiative is currently focused on halting methane releases from the oil and gas sector, which scientists and policymakers view as some of the world’s most avoidable emissions in part because leaks represent lost product that energy producers can sell.
The UN effort uses global mapping satellites like the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-5P orbital to identify major methane plumes and then conducts further analysis with high resolution satellites and datasets to identify the source of emissions. The leak had an estimated emissions rate of 5.8 metric tons an hour, which translates into the same climate impact as roughly 100 passenger vehicles in a full year, according to IMEO.
Hyperspectral satellites detect concentrations of methane from space when sunlight reflects off the Earth. As light passes through a cloud of gas, its intensity weakens at certain wavelengths. That leaves behind a basic fingerprint that scientists can trace.
Agriculture is the biggest source of methane from human activity, followed by fossil fuels and the waste sector. The invisible and odorless gas has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide during its first two decades in the atmosphere.
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Methane can accidentally leak from fossil fuel operations, but in some cases energy producers deliberately release the gas — a controversial practice that the International Energy Agency says should be eliminated, except during emergencies to avoid a dangerous build up of pressure.
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