Researchers at Leeds University, in collaboration with GHGSat, have detected a methane leak from space for the first time in the United Kingdom. The methane detection opens doors for the quick identification and mitigation of methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas responsible for aggravating climate change.

The methane leak, which occurred over three months, was traced to a gas main operated by Wales and West Utilities. The leaked methane is a greenhouse gas with 28 times the heating potential of carbon dioxide (CO2). It could have powered approximately 7,500 homes for an entire year.

Emily Dowd, a PhD researcher at Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment, initially focused on studying methane leaks from landfill sites using satellite imagery. Dowd stumbled upon a distinct marker of a methane leak in images of a gas pipeline owned by Wales and West Utilities.

The use of satellite technology proves to be a game-changer in the fight against methane emissions. Traditional ground-based monitoring methods can be time-consuming and may not provide timely detection, allowing leaks to persist unchecked. However, satellite detection offers a bird’s-eye view of vast areas, making it possible to identify leaks quickly and accurately.

Wales and West Utilities became aware of the methane leak when a member of the public reported the smell of gas in the area. At the time, the company was in the process of obtaining permissions for gas mains replacement. However, the satellite detection of the leak expedited their response.

In addition to the space-based investigations, a team from Royal Holloway University undertook on-the-ground measurements as part of the comprehensive investigation. These measurements helped validate the satellite data and provided information for pinpointing the exact location and scale of the methane leak.

Methane emissions in the UK originate from various sources, including the oil and gas industry, farming, and landfill sites. Although the country has made progress in reducing methane emissions since 1990, recent years have seen a slowdown in this trend.

Jean-Francois Gauthier, senior vice president for strategy at GHGSat, underscored the potential of satellites in methane detection. GHGSat operates a constellation of nine satellites orbiting at 500km overhead, equipped with high-resolution capabilities that allow them to detect gases at a remarkable resolution of 25 metres.

GHGSat’s commitment to methane detection monitoring was further solidified by a recent £5.5 million partnership with the UK, funded by the UK Space Agency. This collaboration aims to provide satellite data on methane emissions to UK organisations, including the Ordnance Survey, facilitating more comprehensive emissions tracking and mitigation strategies.

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency, highlighted the increasing capabilities of smaller, more powerful satellites, which offer an ideal perspective for monitoring global greenhouse gas emissions.