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  • Rights: The University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato
    Published 25 July 2022 Referencing Hub media

    MethaneSAT is designed to detect methane emissions from accidental leaks, natural sources and agricultural practices. Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher and Dr Beata Bukosa (NIWA) and Professor David Noone (University of Auckland) tell us about their involvement with MethaneSAT’s science mission.

    Note: Sara mentions that wetlands and peatlands are natural sources of methane. They are also incredibly beneficial as carbon sinks – removing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide.

    Jargon alert:

    • Model: a computer program that uses data (measurements) to simulate how something works.
    • Air column: a vertical column of air from the top of the atmosphere down to ground level. The atmosphere is dynamic, which means the wind blows gases around. Gases and other substances in the air column can come from different locations.

    Questions for discussion:

    • Why is it important to know where large gas and oil leaks are located?
    • Why is it important to know about methane emissions happening at the surface of the ground?
    • Where do most of Aotearoa New Zealand’s methane emissions come from?
    • How can models ‘untangle’ emissions emitted from a specific location from those that blow in from another continent?


    Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher

    Principal Scientist (Carbon, Chemistry and Climate), NIWA
    Science Leader, MethaneSAT

    MethaneSAT was primarily designed to detect large oil and gas leaks from space. This is one of those problems that’s seen as quite low-hanging fruit for climate solutions. Often, these fossil fuel emissions of methane – they’re not being done intentionally as you do when you drive a car – they’re as a result of accidental leaks. And if you can tell people where the leaks are, they can fix them. So it’s sort of a climate solution with very few losers. In Aotearoa, we don’t have a lot of methane leaks from oil and gas. What we do have a lot of is agriculture

    Professor David Noone

    Buckley-Glavish Professor of Climate Physics, Department of Physics, University of Auckland

    For the case of MethaneSAT, it’s also the right spatial scale to be relevant for agricultural practices. A spatial resolution of the order of a few kilometres is pretty close to an agricultural district.

    Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher

    And so it gives us the ability to develop approaches to be able to use the satellite to detect emissions from agriculture and benefit not just our own understanding of our agricultural emissions but lead global understanding of agricultural emissions around the world and to support other countries to reduce their agricultural emissions.

    Professor David Noone

    MethaneSAT bridges this divide between the fundamental science and thinking about the way that science is impactful for policy making. MethaneSAT is making measurements of the right scale to be useful for community leaders in deciding how they would like to use their landscapes. This may be iwi, it may be the government.

    Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher

    The satellite measures the amount of methane in the air column. But what you actually need for policy is what are the emissions? How much methane is being released? That methane in the air column that the satellite observes, that’s actually a mixture of both what the emissions are and how the atmosphere is moving those methane emissions around. What we want to know is the emissions that are right at the surface. But in that total air column, at the higher altitudes, you’re seeing all kinds of things flying overhead – emissions from Australia, emissions from South America, even emissions from Africa can be observed in the total air column here in Aotearoa. So you need to be able to separate what’s going on within our boundaries and far beyond our shores, and so modelling tools untangle that atmospheric transport from the original emissions.

    Dr Beata Bukosa

    Atmospheric Modeller, NIWA

    My role is on the modelling side of the project. I’m supposed to take these measurements that are collected by the satellite and put them into a number of models in order to calculate how much methane was emitted from agricultural processes.

    Professor David Noone

    My role is to make sure that what we are measuring from the satellite is in agreement with what we know is actually there. Satellite measurements are a good approximation of what’s really there. Satellites' measurements of the Earth are sort of like looking through very fuzzy glasses, and so we need to also have that very refined view. So one of the roles that I have within the project is to make those very precise measurements over agricultural regions.

    Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher

    Another challenge is to be able to say that that emission I observed here, that’s due to agriculture – it’s not due to wetlands, it’s not due to peatlands, it’s not due to any of the other sources – it’s due to agriculture. Because to do other would be really unfair to our farmers who are doing, you know, their best to adapt in this crazy changing world that we have.

    Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, NIWA
    Professor David Noone, University of Auckland
    Dr Beata Bukosa, NIWA
    Infrared capture of methane leak, shots of gas plant from plane and onscreen data, Permian Basin methane mapping project with Scientific Aviation and the University of Wyoming, MethaneSAT logo and animation of MethaneSAT satellite above Earth, satellite field of view and small aircraft collecting data (in USA), all courtesy of MethaneSAT and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF)
    Sheep, NIWA
    Dairy cows, University of Waikato Te Whare Wānanga o Waikato and DairyNZ
    Satellite image of New Zealand, NASA, CC BY 2.0
    Cattle in South Sudan, Communication and Public Information Office of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), CC BY 3.0
    Rice paddies, Appreciation TV, CC BY 3.0
    Satellite view of New Zealand and Australia on Earth, antartis, 123RF Ltd
    Copernicus Sentinel 1 satellite over Earth, European Space Agency (ESA)
    Visualisation of nitrogen dioxide over the Netherlands from TROPOMI data, European Space Agency (ESA), CC BY-SA IGO 3.0
    Visualisations of gases over Netherlands for air quality forecasting, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, data from TROPOMI, Sentinel 1, European Space Agency (ESA)

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