NASA Uses Satellites to Track Pollution

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration has developed a new method to locate and monitor sources of air pollution using satellites. NASA recently used this approach to discover 39 previously unreported major sources of sulfur dioxide. The SO2 is coming from coal-burning power plants, smelters and oil and gas operations in Mexico, the Middle East and parts of Russia.


“We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known,” Chris McLinden, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “When you look at a satellite picture of sulfur dioxide, you end up with it appearing as hotspots — bull’s-eyes, in effect — which makes the estimates of emissions easier.”

McLinden said these hotspots account for 12 percent of all human-produced SO2 emissions on the globe. The technique can not only pinpoint the sources of the emissions but also more accurately gauge how much is being produced. The satellite was able to determine that known sources of SO2 were producing as much as three times the emissions than previously believed. In addition, the satellite located 75 natural sources of sulfur dioxide in non erupting volcanoes.

“The unique advantage of satellite data is spatial coverage,” said Bryan Duncan, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This paper is the perfect demonstration of how new and improved satellite data sets, coupled with new and improved data analysis techniques, allow us to identify even smaller pollutant sources and to quantify these emissions over the globe.”

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