Hey, methane leakers: Now we know where you live

A European start-up uses satellite data to pinpoint individual sources of abnormal methane concentration.

World map of abnormal methane emissions, thanks to a tech start-up and satellite data.

Image: Kayrros
  • Just 100 sources of methane emit 20 megatons each year.
  • Thanks to satellite data, individual culprits can now be found.
  • The new tech could be used to police 'abnormal' methane emissions.

Significant contributor to global warming

\u200bNodding donkey in Midland, Texas. The oil and gas industry is a major emitter of methane.

Nodding donkey in Midland, Texas. The oil and gas industry is a major emitter of methane.

Image: Eric Kounce TexasRaiser, public domain

Methane is the second most important greenhouse gas (after CO2), and its concentration in the atmosphere is increasing at around 1% each year. Because it absorbs the sun's heat even more efficiently than CO2, it's a significant contributor to global warming.

The first step to fight the rise in methane emissions is to track who's doing it. That's just become a lot easier. Paris-based tech start-up Kayrros can now find individual sources of abnormal methane emissions, all across the world. That's a first, and it's made possible by data from the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite.

Developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and launched in 2017, the British-built Sentinel-5 Precursor (Sentinel-5P) is the first satellite of the Copernicus program dedicated to monitoring air pollution, thanks to a spectrometer called Tropomi (short for Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument).

With a resolution of about 50 km2, this Dutch-built instrument can monitor atmospheric levels of aerosols, sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde (CH2O), ozone (O3) and methane (CH4).

High-volume methane leaks

\u200bAbnormal methane concentrations in 2019 \u2013 often found in regions of the world producing or procesing oil and gas. Data provided by the Copernicus program, processed by Kayrros.

Abnormal methane concentrations in 2019 – often found in regions of the world producing or processing oil and gas. Data provided by the Copernicus program, processed by Kayrros.

Image: Kayrros

You may not have heard of Tropomi yet, but it's likely you've already seen its work. Earlier this year, Copernicus Sentinel-5P produced the images that showed substantially reduced NO2 levels across China, due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Tropomi also offers the most detailed monitoring of methane emissions presently available. Combining that data with other input from older-model Copernicus satellites Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, and from other sources (including ground sensors, position tracking and even social media), Kayrros scientists can identify the size, potency, and location of abnormal methane leaks around the world.

According to Kayrros, there are around 100 high-volume methane leaks active around the world at any given time. Together, they release about 20 megatons of methane per year. About half of that volume is associated with mining for oil, gas or coal, or other heavy industries. Together, that amount of methane per annum is equivalent to CO2 emissions of France and Germany combined.

So, how precise is the Kayrros method? Here's a recent case study.

Plume over the Permian Basin

Image: Kayrros

In December last year, Kayrros used data from Copernicus-5P to identify the source of a methane plume over the Permian Basin, which covers western Texas and southeastern New Mexico. Sitting on top of a part of the Mid-Continent Oil Field, the Basin's surface is dotted with hundreds of oil wells. Yet with a little help from Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2, Copernicus-5P managed to find the exact location, and the individual culprit.

For the first time, Kayrros tech and Copernicus-5P data make it possible to detect abnormal methane emissions in real time. Not only will this increase the precision of methane emission estimates, it will also allow regulators to find and fine the exact culprits, and if necessary, shut down their operations.

Found: the culprit

Image: Kayrros

Images found here at Phys.org. Many thanks to Jana R. for sending this in.

Strange Maps #1027

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

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Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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