A team of experts from four leading scientific organizations are preparing to study the skies over New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah this month to find out more about a mysterious methane bloom that appeared in the area.
Researchers from the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), University of Colorado, and University of Michigan presented their plans to survey the recently discovered methane spot, considered the largest of its kind in U.S. history, and its effects on local climate. The presentation was held at the San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico.
The methane bloom centers on the Colorado-New Mexico border between the La Plata and San Juan counties. The area affected by the methane spot is collectively known as the Four Corners.
Scientists first reported the methane spot in 2014 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 result of their study 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. Its emissions, however, are much more dangerous than those of CO2.
"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.
Kort added that methane levels in the atmosphere have increased in the past 200 years. It is believed that this phenomenon has gone from an average of 700 parts per billion (ppb) from before the Industrial Age to 1,800 ppb in the present.
There are several theories concerning the source of the methane bloom.
The San Juan Basin is known for its geologic deposits and fossil-fuel infrastructure, which could likely be causes of the methane leaks.
Kort also said that oil and gas sectors are viewed as important contributors to the methane leaks and that their emissions have been consistently underestimated.
The states included in the Four Corners are known as the leading producers of coalbed methane, a type of natural gas, in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared that emissions from natural gas produced in Four Corners amounts to 10 percent of the total emissions in the United States.
The survey of the atmosphere over the Four Corners will be conducted in the next two weeks, with seven aircraft units from the NOAA and NASA collecting air samples to verify the data from the satellite. They will also try to determine the amount of methane produced locally and the methane that is blown to the area from other parts.
Other planes will measure the total greenhouse emissions in the basin through the help of a large grid pattern while the rest will collect point-source measurements over specific areas where spikes of methane have been detected.
Photo: Deacon MacMillan | Flickr