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An image of the methane leak from Nordstream as seen by the GHGSat team in Montreal. They are able to calculate exactly how much methane is being released. This is the first direct measurement of the methane coming out of the damaged pipeline.GHGSat

A Canadian satellite has captured the first direct view of methane leaking into the atmosphere from two ruptured pipelines under the Baltic Sea.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. It is also the primary ingredient in natural gas. Its heat-trapping effects were cause for alarm when gas began escaping from the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, which run from Russia to Western Europe, after both lines were damaged in a series of mysterious explosions on Monday.

But not until Friday was it possible to see just how much methane was produced in the event. That’s when a satellite operated by Montreal-based GHGSat flew overhead and captured an image of a 12-kilometre long plume from one of four leaks bubbling up from the sea floor.

The image suggests that the leak is still producing 22,920 kilograms of methane per hour – comparable to some of the largest manmade sources of methane anywhere on Earth.

A satellite image shows gas from the Nord Stream pipeline bubbling up in the water after incidents in the Baltic Sea, in this handout picture released Sept. 29, 2022.ROSCOSMOS/Reuters

Methane is invisible to the human eye but can be detected using an infrared camera like the kind the company has developed for monitoring emissions from space.

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In the image, the methane looks like a smoke trail from a fire as seen from above. Its starting point coincides with a spot roughly 15 kilometres from the Danish island of Bornholm and then drifts northeastward on the wind.

“It’s a very important event,” said Stéphane Germaine, president of GHGSat. “We just really wanted to nail it.”

He added that spying the plume over water was a significant feat for the satellite, since water normally absorbs infrared light. To acquire the image, the spacecraft had to be in precisely the right position and viewing the plume while infrared sunlight was glinting off the sea surface at an angle.