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Massive Methane Hot Spot Detected by Satellite

Climate

One tiny section in the U.S. is responsible for a significant amount of the country's methane emissions, according to new information released by scientists from NASA and the University of Michigan.

The Four Corners area seen in red produces the largest concentrated amount of methane emissions in the U.S. On this map, lighter colors are higher than average; darker colors are lower. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan

In a study published this week, they analyzed satellite-gathered data and found that an area about 2,500 square miles, near the "Four Corners" where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah connect, produces the largest concentration of these greenhouse gas emissions ever found in the U.S., more than triple the previous estimate based on ground-gathered information. While carbon emissions are more plentiful and have attracted most of the attention as the driver of climate change, methane has been found to be an even more potent greenhouse gas.

The researchers looked at data from 2003-2009 and found that in that time, that area released 590,000 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere annually, nearly three and a half times the previous estimate for the area. That's about 10 percent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's official estimate for the whole country during those years. The hot spot persisted during the entire observation period.

Fracking has been widely identified as a culprit in boosting methane emissions. But this new analysis indicates that older methods of fossil-fuel extraction are just as harmful, with methane emissions added to carbon emissions to multiple the environmental damages from fossil fuels. Fracking wasn't widely used in the area during the period studied; the boom didn't kick off there until 2009. But it is a major coal-mining center. And New Mexico's San Juan Basin is the most active coalbed methane production area in the country, a process in which methane-heavy natural gas (composed of about 95-98 percent methane) is extracted from pores and cracks in coal to use for fuel. In the process, it produces significant leaks (and well as coal mine explosions.)

"The results are indicative that emissions from established fossil fuel harvesting techniques are greater than inventoried," said the study's leader author Eric Kort of the University of Michigan. "There's been so much attention on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but we need to consider the industry as a whole."

In March, President Obama announced a blueprint for methane emission reduction that included addressing emissions from coal mines.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

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At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.