Scientists Finally Know Why There's a Massive Cloud of Methane Gas Over the Southwest

NASA

The news: A single hot spot in the American Southwest is responsible for the biggest concentration of methane gas seen over the United States. Now, thanks to satellite imagery, we can see just how massive it is. 

The data, published on Thursday by scientists at NASA and the University of Michigan, found that the amount of the noxious gas over the region is more than three times larger than ground estimates indicated. 

The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher).Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
The Four Corners area (red) is the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this map showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009 (dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher).  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

Each year between 2003 and 2009, the San Juan Basin in New Mexico produced 590,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gas. That volume persists throughout every season despite changes in weather, which, as Slate points out, was evidence that the methane was coming from an unnatural source. 

Scientists were initially shocked by this phenomenon. "We didn't focus on it because we weren't sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error," NASA's Christian Frankenberg told CityLab. The sheer volume of methane gas — the San Juan Basin's emissions may be equivalent to the whole gas, oil and coal industry in the United Kingdom — was enough to throw researchers off. 

"It is a pretty impressive number from such a small spatial region," Eric Kort, a professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, told Slate 

Where is it coming from? Although the region is located right near a hotbed for fracking, Kort noted that the wildly high numbers predate any activity related to fracking.

A fracking site in Colorado.Source: Bloomberg/Getty Images
A fracking site in Colorado.  Bloomberg/Getty Images

Instead, he believes that the methane is coming from "leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment." Natural gas is 95% to 98% methane, and the San Juan Basin is the most active coal-bed methane production area in the country, according to the study. At 590,000 metric tons, that means this massive cloud comprises 10% of the EPA's estimate of total U.S. emissions from natural gas production

"The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried," said Kort. "There's been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole."

Why it matters: Methane is a particularly dangerous greenhouse gas. Odorless and colorless, it's difficult to detect leaks in the absence of scientific equipment. However, as Slate notes, pound for pound, it's 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun. 

In essence, because of its power, tackling methane production is likely to become the next frontier in fighting greenhouse gas emissions, and thus climate change. If we can't get a proper hold on methane emissions, we may be in for a bumpy road. 

Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center
Source: Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center

The government, for its part, is attempting to mitigate the problem. In March, the Obama administration announced a blueprint for reducing methane emissions as part of its Climate Action Plan. The use of satellite imagery will also help. While it often won't be as accurate as ground data, as Frankenberg put it, "from space, there are no hiding places."