Methane leak from Nord Stream pipeline is detected from space

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A stream of methane gas leaking from a ‘sabotaged’ pipeline in Northern Europe has been captured by satellites. 

Imagery from satellite company GHGSat shows the stream of methane – which is a potent greenhouse gas – over the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. 

The methane in the image leaked from a single rupture point on Nord Stream 2 – one of two pipelines linking Russia to Germany that were thought to be deliberately damaged late last month.

Gas has been leaking at a rate of 174,000 pounds (79,000 kg) per hour from this rupture point at Nord Stream 2, equivalent to more than 2 million pounds of coal being burned in an hour.

This single leak is the ‘largest emission from a single source’ ever detected by GHGSat.

Images from satellite company GHGSat show methane concentration in the atmosphere on the surface of the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. Methane bubbles rose from the underwater pipes and were released into the atmosphere once reaching the water's surface

Images from satellite company GHGSat show methane concentration in the atmosphere on the surface of the Baltic Sea off the coast of Sweden. Methane bubbles rose from the underwater pipes and were released into the atmosphere once reaching the water’s surface

High-resolution satellite measurements by GHGSat of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline leak in the Baltic Sea on September 30, 2022, taken 2.5 hours apart

High-resolution satellite measurements by GHGSat of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline leak in the Baltic Sea on September 30, 2022, taken 2.5 hours apart

This map shows the pair of Nord Stream natural gas pipelines that runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. It comprises the Nord Stream 1 pipeline running from Vyborg in northwest Russia, near Finland, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from Ust-Luga in northwest Russia near Estonia. Red stars in the image depict the locations of the leaks

This map shows the pair of Nord Stream natural gas pipelines that runs under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. It comprises the Nord Stream 1 pipeline running from Vyborg in northwest Russia, near Finland, and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from Ust-Luga in northwest Russia near Estonia. Red stars in the image depict the locations of the leaks

View of the Nord Stream gas leak seen from a Danish defence aircraft at mid-sea in Denmark September 30, 2022

View of the Nord Stream gas leak seen from a Danish defence aircraft at mid-sea in Denmark September 30, 2022

WHAT HAPPENED? 

Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are two pipelines linking Russia and Germany, owned by Russia. 

A sudden loss of pressure in the pipelines was noted by operators of Nord Stream 2 overnight on Monday, September 26.

This was followed by a statement from the Danish Energy Authority outlining that a leak had likely occurred in one of the pipes. 

It was later confirmed on Tuesday by Sweden’s Maritime Administration that two fissures had been detected on Nord Stream 1 in Swedish and Danish waters.

A third leak was later reported on the Nord Steam 2 pipeline, that has yet to begin commercial operations, in the same area northeast of the Danish island of Bornholm.

While Nord Stream 1 stopped delivering natural gas to Germany last month, and Nord Stream 2 has yet to begin commercial operations, the pipes still contained some pressurised gas that has been hurtling to the surface of the Baltic ever since. 

According to Swedish and Danish authorities, there were four leaks from the two Nord Stream pipes (two in the Swedish economic zone, two in the Danish economic zone). 

‘What our satellites observed is a significant emission coming from one of the four leaks,’ said Stephane Germain, founder and CEO of GHGSat.

‘Moving forward, satellite observations and data will play an increasingly important role in the detection and mitigation of significant emissions, such as this.’ 

Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are two pipelines linking Russia and Germany, owned by Russia. They show signs of sabotage and multiple ‘detonations’, Swedish authorities have said. 

Neither pipeline was transporting gas at the time of the blasts, but they contained pressurised methane – the main component of natural gas – which spewed out, producing a wide stream of bubbles on the sea surface. 

Methane is a greenhouse gas, meaning it exacerbates global warming and climate change effects if it is released into the atmosphere.

It is also highly flammable, so when in contact with the air it raises the risk of explosion, and directly reduces air quality.

On Sunday (October 9), the Danish Energy Agency announced that the leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines had been stopped.

According to GHGSat, one of its satellites had a clear view of Nord Stream 2 on October 3 and did not detect any emissions, confirming the Danish Energy Agency’s announcement. 

The European Space Agency (ESA) has also shared images of the methane impacts, as captured by satellites owned by other firms.  

This radar image was captured on September 28 by Finnish microsatellite manufacturer ICEYE

This radar image was captured on September 28 by Finnish microsatellite manufacturer ICEYE

On September 26, satellites owned by Planet (part of ESA¿s Third Party Mission Programme) captured an image of the Nord Stream Gas pipeline rupture in the Baltic Sea

On September 26, satellites owned by Planet (part of ESA’s Third Party Mission Programme) captured an image of the Nord Stream Gas pipeline rupture in the Baltic Sea

GHGSat image of methane (CH4) concentrations from the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline leak in the Baltic Sea on September 30, 2022, at 10:28:12 UTC

GHGSat image of methane (CH4) concentrations from the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline leak in the Baltic Sea on September 30, 2022, at 10:28:12 UTC

Another GHGSat image shows the Nord Stream 2 leak a couple of hours later on the same day - at 12:56:32 UTC

Another GHGSat image shows the Nord Stream 2 leak a couple of hours later on the same day – at 12:56:32 UTC

As the pressurised gas leaked through the broken pipe and travelled rapidly towards the sea surface, the size of the gas bubbles increased as the pressure reduced.

On reaching the surface, the large gas bubbles disrupted the sea surface above the location of the pipeline rupture, according to the ESA.  

ESA added said the Nord Stream leak ‘pales in comparison’ with the 80 million tonnes emitted each year by the oil and gas industry. 

‘The latest release is roughly equivalent to one and a half days of global methane emissions,’ the space agency said.

The cause of the pipeline damage is unknown, although there are suspicions from Western leaders that it was caused deliberately by Russia. 

On September 27, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said that the leaks were no accident and that she ‘cannot rule out’ sabotage.

Pictured, a large disturbance in the sea off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm on Tuesday, September 27, 2022 following a series of unusual leaks on two natural gas pipelines running from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany have triggered concerns about possible sabotage

Pictured, a large disturbance in the sea off the coast of the Danish island of Bornholm on Tuesday, September 27, 2022 following a series of unusual leaks on two natural gas pipelines running from Russia under the Baltic Sea to Germany have triggered concerns about possible sabotage

Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are two pipelines linking Russia and Germany, owned by Russia. Pictured, a Nord Stream terminal in Germany

Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 are two pipelines linking Russia and Germany, owned by Russia. Pictured, a Nord Stream terminal in Germany

The pipelines show signs of sabotage and multiple'detonations', Swedish authorities have said. Pictured, pipes at the landfall facilities of Nord Stream 2 in Lubmin, Germany

The pipelines show signs of sabotage and multiple ‘detonations’, Swedish authorities have said. Pictured, pipes at the landfall facilities of Nord Stream 2 in Lubmin, Germany

‘It is now the clear assessment by authorities that these are deliberate actions. It was not an accident,’ Frederiksen said at a press briefing in Copenhagen.  

Professor Joan Cordiner, a professor of Process Engineering at the University of Sheffield, also ruled out an accidental cause.

‘Pipes don’t just leak catastrophically suddenly,’ she said. 

‘Typically normal leaks due to corrosion start small and build up over time. Therefore such a sudden large leak can only have come from a sudden blow cutting the pipe.

‘We can see from the width of the bubbles that the leak was sudden and very large, which is consistent with a large pipe being fully cut and not from normal corrosion we would see in operation.

‘This is from a powerful event; either a large explosion or sudden physical trauma that cut the pipe wide open.’

An investigation into the specific cause will hopefully yield the answers, Professor Cordiner added.

METHANE: A POWERFUL GREENHOUSE GAS 

Methane is a colourless, odourless flammable gas, and the main constituent of natural gas.

Methane is a greenhouse gas, and the second biggest cause of climate change after carbon dioxide.

Both gases trap heat in the atmosphere, similar to the glass roof of a greenhouse.

During the day, the sun shines through the atmosphere and Earth’s surface warms up in the sunlight.

At night, the Earth’s surface cools, releasing heat back into the air, but some of the heat is trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Too much of these gases can cause Earth’s atmosphere to trap more and more heat, causing the planet to warm up.

Methane has more than 80 times the heat-trapping potency of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.

However this does decrease over time, as it breaks down over the course of about a decade.

It is emitted during the production and transport of coal, natural gas and oil, as well as from livestock and decaying organic waste at landfill sites. 

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