Toxic Air Pollution Unreported So far Spotted by NASA Satellite

A new satellite-based detection method has revealed 39 unreported and major human-made sources of toxic air pollution, key among them being sulfur dioxide (SO2) emitting coal-burning power plants; smelters; and oil and gas operations in the Middle East, Mexico and parts of Russia.

The new study, published online May 30 in the journal Nature Geoscience, has cited data from NASA’s Aura satellite from 2005 to 2014 to red-flag the authorities concerned about sulfur dioxide, a gas that is a known health hazard and a major contributor to acid rain.

Besides, the satellite also found emissions from known sources of SO2 pollution to be two to three times higher than that reported previously.

Prior to the analysis by this satellite, officials had been relying on known locations of SO2 sources and subsequent use of emissions inventories from ground-based measurements.

The research also identified a natural source of SO2: as many as 75 non-erupting volcanoes—many volcanoes are remote and unmonitored—too slowly leak SO2, a phenomenon that has come forth through the satellite analysis.

Chris McLinden, lead author of the study and an atmospheric scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in a statement, “We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known. 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”.

Explaining the gravity of the situation, McLinden said these SO2 hotspots alone account for about 12% of all human-made SO2 emissions. The study has been conducted jointly by experts from NASA, Environment Canada, University of Maryland, College Park, and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Through the new information, researchers expect to better understand regulatory policies on air quality and help predict future emissions.

“A known health hazard and contributor to acid rain, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is one of six air pollutants regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Current, sulfur dioxide monitoring activities include the use of emission inventories that are derived from ground-based measurements and factors, such as fuel usage. The inventories are used to evaluate regulatory policies for air quality improvements and to anticipate future emission scenarios that may occur with economic and population growth,” according to a news report published by Phys.

“We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known,” said Chris McLinden, an atmospheric scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada in Toronto and lead author of the study published this week in Nature Geosciences. “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.”

The 39 unreported emission sources, found in the analysis of satellite data from 2005 to 2014, are clusters of coal-burning power plants, smelters, oil and gas operations found notably in the Middle East, but also in Mexico and parts of Russia. In addition, reported emissions from known sources in these regions were—in some cases—two to three times lower than satellite-based estimates.

According to a story published on the topic by Live Science, “The newly identified sources of toxic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions include coal-burning power plants; smelters; and oil and gas operations in the Middle East, Mexico and parts of Russia, according to the new study. These previously unreported sources were found in an analysis of data from NASA’s Aura satellite from 2005 to 2014.”

A known health hazard and contributor to acid rain, sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions are closely monitored. Before this satellite-based analysis, SO2 monitoring methods had relied on known locations of pollution sources and subsequent use of emissions inventories from ground-based measurements. [In Photos: World’s Most Polluted Places]

“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.”

A report published in CS Monitor informed, “Almost 40 major unreported sources of anthropogenic sulfur dioxide emissions have been identified using a new satellite-based method, holding implications for inventories and the regulatory policies that flow from those statistics.”

Sulfur dioxide is a gas that impacts human health and the environment, one of six air pollutants regulated by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Its sources are both natural, from volcanic activity, and man-made, mainly through the burning of fossil fuels.

Until now, data regarding sulfur dioxide activities have largely been gleaned through ground-based measurements and statistics, such as fuel usage. The new study, published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience, adds definition to this understanding, thereby allowing the development of more effective policies to improve air quality and more accurate models of future emissions scenarios.

“We now have an independent measurement of these emission sources that does not rely on what was known or thought known,” said lead author Chris McLinden, an atmospheric scientist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Toronto, in a NASA press release. “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.”

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