Four Corners: Raw data show “crazy” methane spikes

Aztec gas field -- Farmington, NM [photo courtesy Ecoflight]

Aztec gas field — Farmington, NM [photo courtesy Ecoflight]

Last October scientists from the University of Michigan discovered a mystery. They reported a large methane bloom over the southwestern U.S. while in the middle of analyzing climate data collected by the European Space Agency’s Scanning Imaging Absorption Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography (SCIAMACHY) satellite from 2003 and 2009. The methane bloom centers on the Colorado-New Mexico border between La Plata and San Juan counties. The methane releases were described as “equivalent to more than the weight of the Empire State Building for each of the years observed,” and make up the largest concentration of methane gas in the U.S. The area affected by the methane bloom is collectively known as the Four Corners (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico). The study, Four corners: The largest US methane anomaly viewed from space is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Eric Kort, a climate expert from the University of Michigan and chief author of the study, explained that methane is a greenhouse gas similar to CO2, though its emissions are much more dangerous.

“That simply means if we increase atmospheric concentrations of methane, it is going to increase temperatures, and that has a global context as well as for local air quality concerns,” Kort said.

Unfortunately the scientists were not able to determine the source of the methane bloom and therefore it has remained a mystery — until now.

In April, scientists from the NOAA research center in Boulder, plus NASA and universities across the country gathered in the Four Corners region determined to solve the mystery. NOAA tracks methane levels around the world because of the impact the greenhouse gas can have on climate.

“It holds the heat so much better, 20-100 times better than carbon dioxide,” said Dr. Russell Schnell with NOAA.

Satellite images pinpointed the highest methane concentration between Durango, Colorado and Farmington, New Mexico.

[Source: NOAA]

[Source: NOAA]

NOAA scientists flew in small aircraft equipped with remote infrared imaging spectrometers to measure and collect precise air quality data, while scientists in two mobile land units with chemical detection instruments covered the ground.

Scientists on board NOAA's Twin Otter aircraft quantified methane emissions from the Four Corners region. [Photo by Sonja Wolter/CIRES]

Scientists on board NOAA’s Twin Otter aircraft quantified methane emissions from the Four Corners region. [Photo by Sonja Wolter/CIRES]

The final results will not be available to the public until sometime next year. However the raw data released to Al Jazeera in a report last week indicate mystery solved. Preliminary on-site data implicate coal mines and oil & gas sites and facilities as the source of “crazy” methane spikes. Excerpts are included below, click on the link to read the full report.

Probe takes aim at US methane plume mystery
NASA and NOAA scientists identify and measure man-made and natural sources of emission hot spot in Southwest

DURANGO, Colo. — Pilot and scientist Steve Conley slipped behind the controls of a nimble single-engine Mooney aircraft and took to the air over the Four Corners region of the U.S. West as part of a quest to find the sources of a mysterious methane hot spot detected over the area from space.

Flying at about 2,000 feet, he banked hard left to circle the ventilation shaft of a coal mine as inlet tubes under the right wing of the aircraft sucked in air, which passed through equipment that detects and quantifies methane and provides results in real time.

“That’s a huge spike right there. It’s scary big,” said Conley as the instruments registered more than four times the background level downwind of the vent shaft, about 25 miles southwest of Durango. “That means that this thing is blowing out stuff like crazy” …

… research in April by scientists with NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) made available to Al Jazeera America has identified a trove of natural and anthropogenic, or human-produced, methane sources — including that coal mine, which was measured belching out more than a ton of the gas every hour — in the San Juan Basin. Quantifying the contribution from each will take months.

“We’re seeing a lot of interesting signals. There’s going to be a lot of work for us to really try and understand what we see,” said Andrew Aubrey of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab at the team’s field headquarters in a hangar at the Durango–La Plata County Airport, from which a fleet of five research aircraft flew sorties. Likely suspects include venting from abundant oil and gas operations in the San Juan Basin as well as coal mines and seepage from natural coal outcrops. Other local methane emitters also include coal power plants, landfills and cattle …

… On the ground, meanwhile, two mobile laboratories outfitted with sophisticated chemical detection instruments drove hundreds of miles across the juniper-studded basin, which is the most active coal bed methane production area in the country, targeting large-point methane sources identified from the air. Just downwind of potential emitters, equipment sampled the air to analyze methane, its isotopes and other hydrocarbons to establish a chemical fingerprint of each methane source.

CIRES scientist Gabrielle Petron works from one of two mobile labs (vans outfitted with sophisticated chemical detection instruments) to probe the sources of methane emissions. [Photo courtesy: CIRES]

CIRES scientist Gabrielle Petron works from one of two mobile labs (vans outfitted with sophisticated chemical detection instruments) to probe the sources of methane emissions. [Photo courtesy: CIRES]

“We can tell the difference between a methane plume that is coming from cows or from landfills [and] from different types of oil and gas extraction,” said Gabrielle Petron, an NOAA scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder as she drove across northwestern New Mexico in a van decked out with a long pole to collect air samples. “Based on that, we’re going to try and reconcile what we see in the air, which is a mix of all these sources, and try and untangle how much is coming from the different categories” …

… Researchers declined to make a quick read of the data, which they said were being gathered at a rate of half a terabyte a day. Nevertheless, a look at the raw data as they were being gathered in the field over two days suggested that substantial contributions to the plume from coal mine gas venting and fugitive emissions from natural gas facilities would likely figure significantly in the findings.

Flying in tight circles around the mine facility, Conley measured methane upwind and downwind of the vent at various altitudes, tallying a spot emission rate that he said was equivalent to the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle every hour. “This one source was the largest emission rate that we’ve measured,” said Conley, who has a doctorate in atmospheric science from the University of California at Davis. “It’s a huge emitter, a huge source of methane … In preliminary numbers, it’s what I’d call scary.”

Sampling on the ground, Petron and research assistant Eryka Thorley detected a strong signal at a gas compressor in northwestern New Mexico that was more than 30 times the background level and took several samples for subsequent laboratory chemical analysis. A gust of hydrogen sulfide made sample collection potentially hazardous, and the small research team was on notice to leave the area swiftly.The study is being conducted amid a gathering push to curb emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that traps 25 times as much heat as carbon pollution over the course of a century. Colorado last year became the first U.S. state to require companies to find and fix methane leaks and install capture 95 percent of emissions of methane and smog-forming volatile organic compounds …

And how’s that working out so far here  in Colorado? Take the Garfield County FLIR Tour

… “I want recognition that coal mines are a massive source of methane. I want recognition that the oil and gas industry need to take responsibility and fix all their leaks and all their fugitive emissions,” said Mike Eisenfeld, the New Mexico energy coordinator for the nonprofit San Juan Citizens Alliance, which has been sounding the alarm about pollution in the area for years.

“I want recognition from our government and government agencies that these are the sources, instead of perpetuating this fraud that, you know, ‘Oh, gosh, we don’t know where this is coming from. Oh, gosh, it’s not that bad. It’s floating in from Asia’ … Let’s address this problem,” he added …

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One Comment on “Four Corners: Raw data show “crazy” methane spikes”

  1. robert dresdner Says:

    a helpful youtube video re fracking and methane emission plumes– hotspots in the southwest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZJbKunq8Tw

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