- First Significant Methane Leak Detected in the UK from Space
- Satellite Detection Enables Rapid Response to Methane Gas Escapes
- Importance of Identifying and Reducing Methane Emissions
The first significant leak of the extremely potent greenhouse gas methane in the United Kingdom has been detected from space.
The gas main operated by Wales and West Utilities leaked over three months, as detected by satellite. The quantity lost could have provided energy for 7,500 homes for one year.
Satellite detection has the potential to detect methane gas escapes rapidly, allowing them to be contained sooner.
Methane has 28 times the thermal capacity of carbon dioxide.
It accounts for approximately 30 percent of the increase in global temperatures.
In March, a pipeline breach in Cheltenham was discovered.
It was discovered by Leeds University using specialized satellites.
Emily Dowd, a PhD candidate at the university’s School of Earth and Environment and National Centre for Earth Observation, had been assessing methane emissions from landfill sites using satellite imagery.
However, she saw a methane leak from a Wales and West Utilities gas pipeline miles away on the photographs.
To tackle climate change, the UK and other nations must identify and reduce methane emissions.
Ms. Dowd collaborated with GHGSat, whose satellites provided the initial images, to conduct additional space-based surveys, while a team from Royal Holloway University conducted ground-based measurements.
Ms. Dowd stated, “The discovery of this leak raises the question of how many others are out there. Perhaps we need to look a bit harder for them and make better use of the technology we have.”
Wales and West Utilities reported discovering the gas escape after a member of the public reported smelling gas. When the satellite spotted the gas leak, they were obtaining approvals to replace the gas mains.
The breach’s cause is unknown, although ageing equipment sometimes leaks methane from gas pipelines.
However, satellite detection has demonstrated the potential to detect methane escapes rapidly.
The primary sources of methane include the oil and gas industry, agriculture, and landfills. Since 1990, methane emissions in the United Kingdom have decreased substantially, but progress has slowed in recent years.
On-site surveys detect methane emissions, a challenging task given the thousands of miles of pipes and installations.
And the United Kingdom’s methane emissions are merely an estimate derived from data on economic activity.
“Satellites are only a small part of the equation,” said GHGSat senior vice president for strategy Jean-Francois Gauthier. “However, satellites have a unique advantage in that they can return frequently to collect additional images without deploying personnel on the ground, allowing them to do so efficiently and affordably.”
The company’s constellation consists of nine satellites that orbit 500 kilometers above the earth and are among the highest-resolution devices capable of detecting gases with a resolution of 25 meters.
Recently, the company signed a £5.5 million partnership with the United Kingdom, funded by the UK Space Agency, to provide satellite data on methane emissions to UK organizations such as Ordnance Survey.
Dr. Paul Bate, the chief executive officer of the UK Space Agency, stated, “As satellites become smaller and more powerful, they provide us with the ideal vantage point from which to monitor global greenhouse gas emissions and inform decision-making on the path to Net Zero.”
There are still limitations associated with the satellites that must be overcome.
Prof. Grant Allen, lecturer in atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, stated, “There is still work to be done to fully validate the precise magnitude of such emissions estimated by satellites like GHGSat, but the capability is already proving incredibly useful for identifying where large (preventable) sources may exist.”