Google, EDF To Track Methane Leaks From Space

Alphabet’s Google and the environmental group Environmental Defense Fund have detailed a partnership that will help track down and locate methane sources from outer space.

In a blog post, Google’s Yael Maguire, VP and general manager, geo developer and sustainability, at Google, revealed that Environmental Defense Fund’s satellite, called MethaneSAT, will soon orbit the Earth to collect satellite data.

That data, when combined with Google’s AI and infrastructure mapping, will help pinpoint and potentially mitigate methane emissions on the planet.


Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is considered to be a major contributor to global warming. It is an extremely powerful greenhouse gas: 84 times as impactful as carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe.

The two organisations have been working together since at 2016, when New York-based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) utilised Google Maps APIs to help pinpoint methane emissions.

But now Google’s Maguire announced the partnership with EDF “that combines our science and technology to reduce methane emissions. This is one of the most powerful, short-term actions we can take to reduce warming.”

Maguire wrote that methane from human sources is responsible for about 30 percent of global warming, and a big contributor of methane in the atmosphere comes from extracting fossil fuels, like oil and gas, from the Earth.

“By powering methane detection algorithms with Cloud computing and applying AI to satellite imagery to identify oil and gas infrastructure around the world, our goal is to help EDF quantify and trace methane emissions to their source,” wrote Maguire.

“With this information, energy companies, researchers and the public sector can take action to reduce emissions from oil and gas infrastructure faster and more effectively.”

And EDF’s new satellite, MethaneSAT, will launched into orbit in early March on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, and will “map, measure and track methane with unprecedented precision, offering a comprehensive view of methane emissions.”

Tracking emissions

MethaneSAT will orbit the Earth 15 times a day at an altitude of over 350 miles, wrote Google’s Maguire. It will measure methane levels in the top oil and gas regions in the world for regular analysis.

He wrote that in order to calculate the amount of methane emitted in specific places and track those emissions over time, EDF developed algorithms powered by Google Cloud in collaboration with scientists at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and its Center for Astrophysics, as well as scientists at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

A colored heat map overlaid on satellite imagery shows how methane emissions are spatially distributed. High-emitting point sources of methane are shown as small yellow dots, and diffuse area emissions are shown as a purple and yellow heat map. MethaneSAT will collect this data with the same technology, at a global scale and with more frequency.
Image credit Google, Environmental Defense Fund

EDF’s aerial data, available in Earth Engine, shows both high-emitting point sources as yellow dots, and diffuse area sources as a purple and yellow heat map.

And in addition to detecting emissions, Google said it taking it a step further and creating a global map of oil and gas infrastructure, with the goal of understanding which components contribute most to emissions.

“Just like how we use AI to detect sidewalks, street signs and road names in satellite imagery to display helpful information in Google Maps, we’ll also use AI to identify oil and gas infrastructure, like oil storage containers, in our imagery,” wrote Maguire.

“Then, we’ll combine it with EDF’s information about oil and gas infrastructure to locate where the emissions are coming from.”

Carbon push

Google is already one of the world’s largest corporate buyer of renewable energy and in September 2020 it achieved a significant environmental milestone when it became the first major company to reach carbon neutrality.

Earlier this month it inched closer to its carbon free goal after signing its largest offshore wind agreement to date, and agreeing to utilise two new wind farms off coast of the Netherlands.

Google has spent years purchasing renewable energy to reduce its carbon footprint and address climate change, as well as making significant investments in solar and wind farms to help it achieve its green energy ambition.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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