According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), agriculture contributes 9.6 percent to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and approximately 36 percent of methane emissions, which are produced in large part by livestock. Scientists have long known that methane emissions from cattle are a significant contributor to climate change. As cows digest their foods through a process known as “enteric fermentation,” they release methane (a powerful greenhouse gas able to trap massive amounts of heat in the atmosphere), mostly through their burps.
Now, the environmental data firm GHGSat has managed for the first time to measure – by using three powerful, high-resolution satellites orbiting 300 miles above the Earth – methane emissions from cow burps on a cattle feedlot in California’s Joaquin Valley. California is home to 1.4 million cows, representing the largest source of cattle-related methane emissions in the country.
Since agricultural methane emissions are generally hard to measure, and accurate measurements are necessary to set enforceable reduction targets for the beef-production industry, this groundbreaking use of satellite data is a significant step forward in controlling these harmful emissions.
According to Brody Wight, the sales director at GHGSat, this is first time that scientists were able to use satellite imagery to provide an accurate idea of the amount of methane emissions from cattle farming.
“This is really pushing the envelope of our capabilities,” said Wight. “What’s unique about us is we can really kind of get to the source” of such emissions, by zooming in on specific feedlots. Each satellite flew above a specific area for about 20 seconds, taking quick “snapshot” of emissions.
The measurements revealed that the amount of methane the satellites have detected from a single feedlot would result in 5,116 tons of methane emissions, if sustained for a year. If that methane were captured, it could power more than 15,000 houses. In the future, regular monitoring with such satellites could offer reliable estimates of how emissions change over time, allowing farmers to test the impact of different diets on cows’ methane emissions.