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NASA science instruments will be part of a global survey of methane point emissions from solid waste

Observations from Earth’s Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) and other NASA science instruments will be part of a global survey of methane point emissions from solid waste sites such as landfills. The multi-year effort is being developed and implemented by the non-profit organization Carbon Mapper.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is responsible for about a quarter to a third of human-caused global warming. The goal of the new initiative is to create a baseline assessment of global landfills that emit high levels of methane. This information can support decision makers as they work to reduce the concentration of the gas in the atmosphere and limit climate change.

Methane produced by the waste sector is estimated to account for 20% of human-caused methane emissions. Ton for ton, methane is more than 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. But where carbon dioxide stays in the air for centuries, methane has a lifetime in the atmosphere of only about a decade or two. This means that some immediate slowing of atmospheric warming could be achieved if methane emissions were significantly reduced.

“There is currently limited information available on methane emissions from the global waste sector. A comprehensive understanding of high-emissions point sources from landfills is a critical step toward mitigation,” said Carbon Mapper CEO Riley Duren. “New technological capabilities that make these emissions visible – and therefore actionable – have the potential to change the game and elevate our collective understanding of near-term opportunities in this often-overlooked sector.”

Carbon Mapper has received a grant from the Grantham Environmental Foundation to support its waste management initiative operations, including potential funding to cover airborne methane surveys by NASA. The project will involve conducting an initial remote sensing survey in 2023 at more than 1,000 managed landfills in the United States and Canada and at key locations in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

 To collect data from these areas, researchers will use aircraft-based sensors, including the Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer-Next Generation (AVIRIS-NG), which was developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. In addition, they will use Arizona State University’s Global Airborne Observatory from the Center of Global Discovery and Conservation Science, which uses another imaging spectrometer built at JPL.

As part of the Carbon Mapper project, researchers will also analyze methane data from EMIT. The JPL-operated Imaging Spectrometer was installed on the International Space Station in July 2022 to measure the mineral content of the surface of Earth’s major dust-producing regions. In October, researchers demonstrated that EMIT can also identify methane plumes from “super-emitters.” In doing so, he added another tool to help with NASA’s broader efforts to monitor greenhouse gases.

“NASA JPL has a decade of experience using airborne imaging spectrometers to make high-quality observations of methane emissions from point sources,” said Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator at JPL. “With EMIT, we used the same technology in the spacecraft, which allows us to collect information about localized sources of methane from orbit.” After the first year of the Carbon Mapper project, scientists will conduct a broader survey of more than 10,000 landfills worldwide using two satellites as part of the Carbon Mapper satellite program. The pair of spacecraft will be equipped with imaging spectrometer technology developed at JPL. The team is targeting a late 2023 launch in coordination with Planet Labs PBC and other partners.

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