Mapping Methane Emissions in California


Using precision instruments and new mapping and machine-learning tools, a research team has been pinpointing sources of the greenhouse gas.

In October 2016, an aircraft equipped with NASA’s Airborne Visible Infrared Imaging Spectrometer–Next-Generation (AVIRIS-NG) instrument detected multiple plumes of methane arising from the Sunshine Canyon landfill near Santa Clarita, California. The plumes were large enough that researchers from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) notified facility operators and local enforcement agencies about it. It was an important step in a process of better accounting for local emissions of the gas.

Methane is a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas that has been responsible for about 20 percent of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. Dairy cows and beef cattle produce methane through their guts and release it in burps. Their manure also produces methane, and when it is stored in manure lagoons it can be a major source of emissions. Oil and natural gas production releases methane from underground, and the infrastructure to store and transport it can leak. And landfills are a source of methane when organic materials are broken down by bacteria in anaerobic conditions.

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Image via NASA Earth Observatory