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New Zealand’s Leading Role in MethaneSAT

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The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) scientists in Aotearoa, New Zealand, are at the forefront of the MethaneSAT agricultural emissions science programme, anticipating the launch of its satellite. MethaneSAT, a pioneering global initiative spearheaded by the U.S. Environmental Defence Fund, is poised to revolutionise the monitoring and mitigation of methane emissions worldwide. While the U.S. project primarily targets methane leaks from oil and gas production, the New Zealand-led agricultural programme investigates and addresses global agrarian emissions, focusing on critical sources such as ruminant farming and rice production.

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Dr Sara Mikaloff-Fletcher, the science leader for the agricultural programme at NIWA, underscored the unparalleled capabilities of MethaneSAT. This cutting-edge satellite can measure methane concentrations over expansive areas, providing high spatial resolution and unmatched precision.

These capabilities far surpass the limitations of ground-based measurements, with MethaneSAT capable of detecting methane levels as low as two parts per billion when averaged over a 1km spatial resolution. “MethaneSAT’s data could be used to identify and quantify methane emissions from agricultural sources, such as livestock and manure management, which contribute to global methane emissions,” said Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher.

Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher explained that New Zealand is an ideal testing ground for the MethaneSAT agricultural programme due to its greenhouse gas profile and world-class measurement and modelling capability. Unlike most developed countries where carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary greenhouse gas, New Zealand’s largest emissions source is methane, predominantly from agriculture.

Satellite data forms the core of the MethaneSAT programme, collecting high-resolution data on methane concentrations over extensive areas. This data is crucial for identifying and quantifying methane emissions from agricultural sources. Researchers will utilise computer models to analyse the satellite data and translate it into meaningful information about methane emissions. This will involve developing and testing sophisticated algorithms for atmospheric conditions and land cover factors. Ground-based measurements of methane emissions will be conducted alongside satellite observations to validate the accuracy of the satellite data, ensuring its reliability for monitoring and quantifying agricultural emissions.

Further, several digital tools and platforms are likely to be used in the project, such as cloud computing for storing and processing large amounts of satellite data, web-based platforms for sharing data and collaborating with researchers around the world, and data visualisation tools for presenting and interpreting the satellite data in a clear and informative way. The project involves a diverse team of researchers across New Zealand and the U.S., working collaboratively to develop and share knowledge.

This collaborative approach will facilitate the development of standardised methods for measuring and reporting agricultural methane emissions. The data collected by MethaneSAT can be used to develop and implement mitigation strategies, track progress toward national and international climate goals, and support research and development for reducing methane emissions from agriculture.

Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher emphasised New Zealand’s long-standing reputation for greenhouse gas measurements and modelling. “This capability positions us beautifully to ground truth in our results. We will prove this capability in New Zealand, demonstrating that measurements made at other locations worldwide can be used confidently,” explained Dr Mikaloff-Fletcher.

The agricultural research programme is a collaboration among experts across New Zealand, including NIWA, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, University of Waikato, and Victoria University of Wellington, along with the U.S.-based science team at Harvard University, EDF and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The project is funded by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, with partners an aerospace manufacturer and the University of Auckland’s Te Pūnaha Ātea-Auckland Space Institute, establishing and operating mission control for the satellite.

The MethaneSAT programme represents an effort to harness digital technology for addressing methane emissions from agriculture, with the potential to contribute significantly to global efforts to combat climate change.


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