Cow Burps Seen From Space

By Keith Cowing
Press Release
May 4, 2022
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Cow Burps Seen From Space
Cow Burps Seen From Space

On 2nd March 2022, high-resolution satellites owned and operated by GHGSat, the environmental data company, detected methane (CH4) emissions coming from an agricultural area in California’s Joaquin Valley.
Analysis later confirmed the source as being a feedlot 6 miles (10km) south-east of Bakersfield. This highlights the importance of tracking greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming, and the ability to do so even from space.

Five emissions were recorded over the Bear 5 feedlot, ranging in size from 443 to 668kg/h. If sustained for a year, this would result in 5,116 tonnes of gas being released – enough to power 15,402 homes. The observations were made by high-resolution satellites the size of microwave ovens, orbiting at an altitude of 500kms (300miles). GHGSat pioneered this technology, which can pin point the exact source of even small leaks.

Agriculture is a major source of methane, a greenhouse gas c.84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years. Cattle faming is responsible for c.3.7% of all emissions, with the world’s
1.4 billion cows each burping up to 500 litres of CH4 per day, due to a digestive process known as ‘enteric fermentation’.

Pollution from feedlots is a major issue. Used to quickly fatten cattle before slaughter, they are a common feature of beef production in Australia, Canada, EU and the US. The largest may contain upwards of 120,000 animals at any one time. California’s 1.4m cows are the biggest source of diary-related methane in the country, something the State is trying to address through legislation. In 2017, new rules came into effect targeting a 40% reduction in levels of methane and fluorinated gases in the atmosphere by 2030, compared with 2013 values.

A variety of techniques to cut cow emissions are being tested, including adding small quantities of seaweed to their feed. Accurate emissions measurement is essential, however, for targets to be enforced and new practices to be adopted by the beef-production industry.

Until now, practical solutions for measuring emissions have been elusive: ground-based monitoring is labour intensive, haphazard and can only scan small areas. Aircraft-mounted sensors can cover more ground, but also at a high cost. GHGSat has shown that satellites can monitor thousands of sites, every day, at low cost and so support immediate climate action.

GHGSat is the world-leader in emissions monitoring from space, and the only organisation – public or private – operating satellites designed for high-resolution greenhouse gas detection. It has been measuring methane emissions from hydropower, oil & gas, landfill and coal mining facilities since 2017, and its data is being provided to the United Nation’s IMEO programme (International Methane Emissions Observatory).

In 2021, GHGSat proved that satellites could accurately measure methane emissions from open-pit coal mines. The company is currently developing world-first methodologies to check emissions from offshore energy production facilities and will also be expanding its investigation of agricultural methane sources to include sugar beet and sugar cane production, and dairy farming.

GHGSat currently has three satellites in orbit with two more scheduled to launch this year.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.