NASA Space Missions Pinpoint Sources of CO2 Emissions on Earth

by | Jan 9, 2023 | Climate Change

By Sally Younger,
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

In Brief:

A case study involving Europe’s largest coal-fired power plant shows space-based observations can be used to track carbon dioxide emissions – and reductions – at the source.

A duo of Earth-observing missions has enabled researchers to detect and track carbon dioxide (CO2) emission changes from a single facility, using the world’s fifth-largest coal-fired power plant as a test case.

In the recent study, researchers used space-based measurements from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 2 and 3 missions to quantify the carbon dioxide discharged hundreds of miles below at Bełchatów Power Station in Poland, the largest single emitter in Europe. Analyzing the plant’s emission plumes from several satellite overpasses between 2017 and 2022, they detected changes in carbon dioxide levels that were consistent with hourly fluctuations in electricity generation. Temporary and permanent unit shutdowns (for maintenance or decommissioning) reduced the plant’s overall emissions, which the team was able to detect as well.

The findings demonstrate that space-based observations can be used to track carbon dioxide emission changes at a local scale, the scientists said.

This illustration shows NASA’s OCO-2 satellite, launched in 2014. As it orbits Earth, the spacecraft maps natural and human-made carbon dioxide emissions on scales ranging from regions to continents. Light-analyzing spectrometers are tuned to detect the telltale signature of the gas.

Launched in 2014, NASA’s OCO-2 satellite maps natural and human-made (anthropogenic) carbon dioxide emissions on scales ranging from regions to continents. The instrument samples the gas indirectly by measuring the intensity of sunlight reflected off Earth’s surface and absorbed by carbon dioxide in the column of air …

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