April 9, 2015

NASA set to investigate methane in Four Corners


A group of researchers will look into the causes of  a large methane cloud over the northwest corner of New Mexico, according to an an announcement on Monday from NASA.

Photo Credit: Joseph Novak cc

Photo Credit: Joseph Novak cc

Christian Frankenberg, a jet propulsion scientist, will be representing NASA in the research.

“With all the ground-based and airborne resources that the different groups are bringing to the region, we have the unique chance to unequivocally solve the Four Corners mystery,” Frankenberg said in a statement.

Last year, the the Daily Times in Farmington reported on the discovery of a methane cloud that covered 2,500 square miles of the Four Corners area.

The measurements show a major bloom of methane gas in the region — approximately 1.32 trillion cubic feet of methane produced or leaked into the atmosphere each year. Methane is second only to carbon dioxide as the most prevalent component in greenhouse gases. Methane is a primary component of natural gas and significant emissions come from the natural gas and petroleum industries.

NASA will fly aircrafts equipped with imaging instruments in the area for their part of the research. Researchers hope data from high elevations in conjunction with ground research will be able to indicate how methane levels differ depending on elevation, the NASA announcement said.

Environmentalists have been vocal about excess methane in the atmosphere and its ties to climate change. The oil and gas industry have dismissed claims that methane is an environmental problem and that many companies trap the gas to later sell.

From the Daily Times article:

Industry leader Tom Dugan of Dugan Production Corporation said the report was hardly a call for concern.

“Gas has seeped around here for thousands of years,” Dugan said. “I wouldn’t worry about it. Methane is part of life. I like it. I’ve made a living off of it for 60 years.”

“I think climate change is blown out of proportion, Dugan said. “Methane’s a great thing to have. It sure beats building a fire.”

An article from the Washington Post last year looked at possible explanations for how the gas escapes into the atmosphere.

But much of this gas never makes it to the market. Companies that are seeking only oil will sometimes burn off or “flare” methane gas rather than collect it. In some cases, methane is allowed to escape or “vent” into the atmosphere, or it simply seeps inadvertently from leaky pipes and scores of small processing stations linked by a spider’s web of narrow dirt roads crisscrossing the desert.

According to their statement, the team from NASA is expected in New Mexico later this month.

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). Image & Caption Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan