NASA scientists, using a tool designed to study how dust affects climate, have identified more than 50 spots around the world emitting major levels of methane, a development that could help combat the potent greenhouse gas.

​"Reining in methane emissions is key to limiting global warming," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press release on Tuesday.

​"This exciting new development will not only help researchers better pinpoint where methane leaks are coming from, but also provide insight on how they can be addressed – quickly."

​NASA said its Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) is designed to foster understanding of the effects of airborne dust on climate.

​But EMIT, which was installed on the International Space Station in July and can focus on areas as small as a soccer field, has also shown the ability to detect the presence of methane.

Methane plume emitted near Tehran, Iran.
A 4.8 kilometer long methane plume south of Tehran, Iran. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

​NASA said more than 50 "super-emitters" of methane gas in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the southwestern United States have been identified so far. Most of them are connected to the fossil-fuel, waste or agriculture sectors.

​Kate Calvin, NASA's chief scientist and senior climate advisor, said EMIT's "additional methane-detecting capability offers a remarkable opportunity to measure and monitor greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change."

​"Exceeds our expectations"

Methane is responsible for roughly 30 percent of the global rise in temperatures to date.

​While far less abundant in the atmosphere than CO2, it is about 28 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas on a century-long timescale. Over a 20-year time frame, it is 80 times more potent.

​Methane lingers in the atmosphere for only a decade, compared to hundreds or thousands of years for CO2.

​This means a sharp reduction in emissions could shave several tenths of a degree Celsius off of projected global warming by mid-century, helping keep alive the Paris Agreement goal of capping Earth's average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

​"EMIT will potentially find hundreds of super-emitters – some of them previously spotted through air-, space-, or ground-based measurement, and others that were unknown," NASA said.

​Andrew Thorpe, a research technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory leading the EMIT methane effort, said some of the methane plumes detected by EMIT are among the largest ever seen.

​"What we've found in a just a short time already exceeds our expectations," Thorpe said.

​NASA said a methane plume about 2 miles (3.3 kilometers) long was detected southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico, in the Permian Basin, one of the largest oilfields in the world.

​It said 12 plumes from oil and gas infrastructure were identified in Turkmenistan, east of the Caspian Sea port city of Hazar.

​A methane plume at least 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) long was detected south of Tehran from a major waste-processing complex, NASA said.

© Agence France-Presse