A view of a city as if from a satellite with a thermal plume of methane coming up
Vanessa Glavinskas and Shanti Menon 3 minute read

The global hunt for a hidden climate threat

Published: Last Updated:

The past 10 consecutive years have been the hottest ever, and 2023 the hottest by far, according to scientists examining nearly 200 years of global record-keeping. There's no doubt the climate is warming, and that impacts of climate change are being seen all over the world, in stronger storms, drier droughts and more acidic oceans. 

To help turn down the heat, fast, efforts are underway to cut climate pollution not only from carbon dioxide but from methane. Methane is a short-lived but powerful greenhouse gas that is accelerating climate change. It has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide in the first 20 years after its release. 

But cutting methane pollution requires locating and measuring it. And that’s no easy task. There are millions of potential methane pollution sources all over the world, including oil and gas equipment and operations, livestock and landfills. Emissions can be large or small. They can last months or minutes. They’re invisible and disperse with the wind.

Environmental Defense Fund, a global nonprofit, has been driving action to cut methane. Over the past decade, EDF scientists and others have been deploying methane detection sensors on everything from cars to cell phone towers to planes — and soon, a globe-circling satellite, MethaneSAT.

Data from these and other efforts will give the world an unprecedented understanding of methane emissions and guide action to make sure reductions happen quickly. 


Coverage: Global

In 2024, EDF subsidiary MethaneSAT will launch a satellite to locate and measure methane leaks large and small, with a precision, speed and scale that’s never been possible. Using groundbreaking technology, MethaneSAT can detect changes as small as 3 parts per billion of methane in the atmosphere. MethaneSAT data will be available at no cost to companies, governments and the public to speed up emissions cuts and track progress.


Research jet

Coverage: Regional

Developed by scientists from EDF, Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, MethaneAIR uses the same methane detection technology behind MethaneSAT, installed in a modified Lear 35 jet. MethaneAIR is measuring methane emissions from major oil and gas producing regions across the U.S. and Canada, providing the most comprehensive look at this pollution to date. (Emissions from the aircraft itself will be offset.) MethaneAIR is also measuring emissions from nearby landfills and agricultural sources.


Drones, helicopters, prop planes

Coverage: Local hot spots   

Drones, helicopters and propeller planes can help locate and measure methane pollution at known trouble spots. European satellite data shows the EU’s biggest methane hotspot lies above a coal mining region in Poland. In 2023, EDF scientists, as part of a UN-led initiative, went in for a closer look. Using a sensor pod towed by a helicopter, along with other instruments, the team was able to measure methane emissions from coal mining with unprecedented accuracy. The data will help guide ongoing EU efforts to cut methane emissions.

In Mexico, airborne sensors showed that methane leaking from a single facility equaled half the gas used by all of the country's residential customers.


Cars and cameras

Coverage: Close up

To measure and verify emissions up close, researchers in oil fields and cities around the world use methane detection equipment mounted on cars or vans. EDF’s partners at Seoul National University in South Korea drove through the streets of Seoul to determine where and how much methane was escaping from the city’s natural gas pipelines. In oilfields, workers use special, handheld infrared cameras to “see” plumes of methane and fix leaks.


Hope for a warming planet

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