There's a Methane 'Hot Spot' the Size of Delaware in the American Southwest

It turns out Four Corners is a massive cow fart.

by Brian Merchant
Oct 9 2014, 10:20pm

Image: NASA

Four Corners can add another notch onto its belt—in addition to being high kitsch for road-tripping tourists, it will now also be known as the single biggest fountain of planet-cooking methane in the United States.

According to new satellite research from scientists at NASA and the University of Michigan, this "hot spot" is "responsible for producing the largest concentration of the greenhouse gas methane seen over the United States—more than triple the standard ground-based estimate." It is 2,500 square miles, about the size of Delaware.

The thing was so big the scientists initially thought it was a mistake in their instruments. "We didn't focus on it because we weren't sure if it was a true signal or an instrument error," NASA's Christian Frankenberg said in a statement.

Methane is an extremely potent heat-trapping gas; while it has a much shorter life cycle than fellow global warming culprit carbon dioxide, some estimates put it on the order of being 80 times more powerful. 

Between 2003-2009, the region released 0.59 million metric tons of it into the atmosphere.

So why is Four Corners spewing out an apocalyptic amount of methane? Because of old, leaky-ass fossil fuel infrastructure, that's why. The hot spot predates fracking, the researchers say, so they've flagged "leaks in natural gas production and processing equipment in New Mexico's San Juan Basin, which is the most active coalbed methane production area in the country" as the culprit.

The scientists say the finding is reason enough to zoom out from fracking, and take stock of the operations of the entire established fossil fuel industry. I'd say so, unless we'd rather Four Corners remain the equivalent of the nation's largest cow fart.