Detection of methane emissions via satellite

17 Dec 2019

A 2018 explosion at a gas well in the US state of Ohio led to the emission of 50,000 tonnes of methane over the 20 days that followed. Scientists from SRON, EDF, VU and TNO were able to deduce this through measurements from the space instrument TROPOMI.

Video still taken from aerial footage of the 2018 Ohio gas leak. Image credit: Ohio State Highway Patrol, via NY Times

Previously, methane data from satellites had to be averaged over a period of many months (or years) in order to see large sources. The Ohio blowout study was an exception as it was possible to estimate the extent of the leak on the basis of observations on a single cloudless day.

TROPOMI and the impact of emissions

TNO designs and builds satellite instruments which can measure the composition of the atmosphere. In addition, we are developing satellite data applications to provide industry and policymakers with information on air quality and climate. This data enables accurate analyses to be carried out, making the impact of emissions clear. TROPOMI examines the global composition of the atmosphere on a daily basis. This data is used to monitor climate and air quality. Among other things, the amount of methane – an important greenhouse gas – in the atmosphere is measured.

TROPOMI measures the concentration of various substances, including nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and methane (CH4) in a vertical column in the atmosphere. For CH4 measurements, this column has a nominal size of 7 km x 7 km at the Earth’s surface (ground pixel). TROPOMI is unique; it is the most accurate instrument that can do this and has a much smaller ground resolution than its predecessors. This makes it possible to directly measure emissions from large sources. TNO designed the opto-mechatronic heart for TROPOMI and is one of the top experts in Europe in the field of emission inventories for air quality and climate research. We focus on the renewal and improvement of emission knowledge using satellite data. In this way, we can provide deeper insights into the extent and impact of the societal problem of air quality and climate change.

Gas Leaks from Space

In the Gas Leaks from Space (GALES) project, financed by NWO and carried out by SRON, VU and TNO, TROPOMI is used to investigate methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. After CO2, methane is the main greenhouse gas. A significant amount of the emissions of this gas comes from the oil and gas industry, coal production, agriculture and waste processing. The Ohio blowout study is a result of this GALES project consortium. TNO explicitly contributes to GALES in the form of emission knowledge and data modelling.

Independent measurements of incidents

In the case of the Ohio blowout, the consortium has shown that a brief incident (which might otherwise go unnoticed) can have a major impact. Other possible causes were eliminated, such as other sources, the incorrect measurement of wind direction and so on. By way of comparison, the 20-day emission of this one point was almost twice the annual emissions of the entire Dutch oil and gas industry, equal to almost 10% of the total annual Dutch methane emissions from all sources.

It is important to be able to measure such incidents independently. If emissions from such incidents are underestimated, complete emission reports cannot be made. Emission inventories are essential for the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement and effective mitigation measures. The impact of the emissions of such incidents in the oil and gas industry needs further research worldwide. The Ohio blowout shows that the consequences of such an incident can be substantial.

For more information, read the press release on the SRON website:

(Scroll down to read the press release in English)


Dr. ir. Hugo Denier van der Gon

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