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Detection of Significant Methane Greenhouse Gas Leak in the UK Using Space Technology


A significant methane leak in the UK, a potent greenhouse gas, has been identified from space for the first time using satellite technology. This leak, detected over a three-month period, originated from a gas main operated by Wales and West Utilities and had the potential to supply power to 7,500 homes for a year. The discovery highlights the capacity of satellite technology to swiftly detect methane leaks, enabling faster intervention.

Methane possesses 28 times the heat-trapping capability of carbon dioxide (CO2) and contributes to about 30% of global temperature increases. The leak, located in Cheltenham and revealed exclusively to the BBC, was found in March with the assistance of specialized satellites by researchers at Leeds University, led by Emily Dowd, a PhD researcher at the university's School of Earth and Environment.

Previously, Ms. Dowd had been using satellite imagery to monitor methane emissions from landfill sites but noticed a distinctive marker of a methane leak originating from a gas pipeline owned by Wales and West Utilities. To further investigate, Ms. Dowd collaborated with GHGSat, the company that provided the satellite images, and researchers from Royal Holloway University, who conducted on-site measurements.

Identifying and addressing methane emissions is a critical objective for the UK and other nations striving to combat climate change. Wales and West Utilities became aware of the leak when a member of the public reported a gas smell, and they were in the process of obtaining the necessary approvals to replace the gas mains when the satellite detected the leak.

The exact cause of the leak remains uncertain, but methane leaks in gas pipelines are not uncommon, especially in aging infrastructure. Nonetheless, the satellite-based detection method has demonstrated its potential to swiftly identify methane leaks.

The primary sources of methane emissions include the oil and gas industry, agriculture, and landfill sites. While methane emissions in the UK have declined significantly since 1990, progress has recently slowed. Current methane leak detection relies on challenging on-the-ground surveys, a daunting task given the extensive network of pipes and sites. Moreover, the UK's methane emission estimates are based on economic activity data.

GHGSat, a company with nine high-resolution satellites in its constellation, orbits at 500km overhead and can detect gases at 25m resolution. They have entered into a £5.5m partnership with the UK, funded by the UK Space Agency, to provide methane emission data to UK organizations such as Ordnance Survey.

The CEO of the UK Space Agency, Dr. Paul Bate, emphasizes the growing capabilities of satellites in monitoring greenhouse gas emissions and informing decisions related to achieving Net Zero emissions. However, there are still limitations in satellite technology that need further development.

According to Prof. Grant Allen, a lecturer in atmospheric science at the University of Manchester, while more work is required to validate precise emission estimates from satellites like GHGSat, their capacity to identify significant, preventable emission sources is already proving highly valuable.