Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences

Vast regions west of the Mississippi River are under development for oil and gas extraction, and the associated equipment has become a familiar sight on any cross-country road trip or flight. But while one focus is on what comes out of the ground, NOAA and CIRES researchers and their colleagues are studying what escapes to the air—and how it is transformed in the atmosphere and affects air quality and climate. The scientists are using a suite of state-of-the-art chemical instruments aboard a research aircraft this spring in the NOAA-led Shale Oil and Natural Gas Nexus (SONGNEX 2015) field campaign, to study the atmospheric effects of energy production in the western United States.

Domestic production of oil and natural gas is increasing as technological advances in directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (commonly called “fracking”) have made the production of oil and natural gas from tight sand and shale formations economically viable. With the increased production comes increased emission of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other trace gases to the atmosphere.

The escaped gases have several possible implications, says Joost de Gouw, lead scientist for SONGNEX and a senior scientist at CIRES, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.

“Both climate and air quality are affected by the gases that escape during oil and gas production. And some of them, like methane, affect both issues,” said de Gouw, who works in the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory.

CIRES and NOAA research has shown that many different VOCs are emitted in the production fields, and that the amount emitted depends greatly on the equipment and production practices in use. The VOCs are key starting ingredients that lead to the production of ozone, a lower-atmosphere pollutant regulated because of its health effects. Other chemical reactions transform the emissions and gases in the air into airborne fine particles, which are also an air quality issue.

Methane emissions are a particular focus because, molecule-for-molecule, it is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Methane’s lower overall abundance in the atmosphere (compared to CO2) leads to its ranking as the second most important greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. Previous NOAA and CIRES work has shown that production activities in some basins emit far more methane than others.

There could be even a third dimension to the complexity, notes de Gouw. “Some of the emissions from oil and gas production, such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide, are themselves air toxics that could have direct impacts on human health.”

SONGNEX will shed a lot more light on what’s going on in the atmosphere above oil and gas production fields, by focusing on basins that represent a mixture of oil and gas production regions at various stages of development. Over a dozen instruments will fly aboard the NOAA WP-3D research aircraft and will sample the air above fields ranging from the Four Corners area and Texas, to Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and North Dakota. Flights will be based out of Colorado and Texas beginning in late March and extending throughout the month of April. Colleagues from universities, industry and other agencies are joining NOAA and CIRES in the effort.

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

Collaborators include Yale University, University of Wisconsin, University of Washington, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Environment Canada, Aerodyne, Inc., Harvard University, University of Maryland Baltimore County, and the University of Calgary. 

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CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) periodically releases Assessment Reports in order to inform policymakers and the public about the latest scientific evidence on climate change. The publication of each report is a key event in the debate about climate change, but their reception and coverage in the media has varied widely.

A study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, has for the first time analysed how Twitter, TV and newspapers reported the IPCC’s climate evidence. Understanding how media coverage varies is important because people’ knowledge and opinions on climate change are influenced by how the media reports on the issue.

The study found that there were markedly different ways in which the media portrayed the IPCC’s latest findings. The researchers, including CIRES Fellow Max Boykoff, investigated this through studying the frames (ways of depicting an issue) the different media sources used to emphasise some aspects of climate change, whilst downplaying others. They also found large differences in how much coverage each Working Group received (the IPCC has three, which focus on the physical science, impacts and adaptation, and mitigation respectively).

The researchers found ten different frames used to communicate climate change: Settled Science, Political or Ideological Struggle, Role of Science, Uncertain Science, Disaster, Security, Morality and Ethics, Opportunity, Economics and Health. The first five frames were used to communicate the IPCC reports much more frequently – whereas the latter frames were not used much at all.

Saffron O’Neill, lead author of the study from the University of Exeter said: “We know that some of these frames are more engaging for audiences than others: for example, the Opportunity or Health frames are both effective at linking the distant issue of climate change to peoples’ everyday life. But these kinds of frames are little used in newspaper coverage, on TV, or on Twitter.”

The study suggests that the availability of visual content and accessible storylines played a big part in how IPCC science was reported by the media. The authors argue that these findings need to inform how future IPCC Assessment Reports are communicated, in order that policymakers and the public are better informed.

The study is part of a Focus Issue in Nature Climate Change titled “IPCC and Media Coverage of Climate Reports,” coordinated by Dr O’Neill. The Issue includes a commentary on social media and the IPCC by the journalist Leo Hickman; a study examining how risk language might help communicate climate change by media expert James Painter; and a proposal for radically reworking the Summaries for Policymakers to increase understanding, by climate and energy commentator Richard Black.

“Dominant frames in legacy and social media coverage of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report” by Saffron O’Neill, Hywel T.P Williams, Tim Kurz, Bouke Wiersma and Maxwell Boykoff is published today in Nature Climate Change.

The study was funded through an ESRC Future Research Leader Award to Dr O’Neill, and through the University of Exeter Humanities and Social Sciences Strategic Fund.

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder.


Max Boykoff, CIRES Fellow, 303-735-6316,

University of Exeter Press Office, +44(0)1392 72 2062/2405,

Satellite pinpointed methane hotspot in remote region

A team of scientific investigators is now in the Four Corners region of the U.S. Southwest, aiming to uncover reasons for a mysterious methane hotspot detected from space by a European satellite. The joint project is working to solve the mystery from the air, on the ground, and with mobile laboratories.

“If we can verify the methane emissions found by the satellite, and identify the various sources, then decision-makers will have critical information for any actions they are considering," says Gabrielle Pétron, a scientist from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, working in NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) and one of the mission’s investigators. In fact, part of President Obama’s recent Climate Action Plan  calls for reductions in U.S. methane emissions.

Last fall, a team of researchers reported that this Southwest hotspot of methane was the largest U.S. methane signal viewed from space. An instrument on a European Space Agency satellite measuring greenhouse gases showed a persistent atmospheric hotspot in the area between 2003 and 2009, which was also detected by light aircraft measurements in the summer of 2014. For the current study, the Japanese GOSAT satellite, which measures methane, has been re-programmed to focus on the Four Corners region. 

The satellite observations were not detailed enough to reveal the sources of the methane in the hotspot. Likely candidates include venting from oil and gas activities, including liquid unloading for coalbed methane extraction; active coal mines; and natural seeps.

Researchers from CIRES, NOAA, and University of Michigan (U-M) planned a field campaign called TOPDOWN (Twin Otter Projects Defining Oil Well and Natural gas emissions) 2015 to bring instruments to the region this spring to investigate possible sources of the methane hotspot, and now they will be joined by others from NASA and elsewhere. “This is a grassroots effort which has brought in funding from multiple agencies to multiple investigators to better understand methane emissions from the Four Corners using an array of methods,” said Eric Kort, one of the mission’s investigators from U-M.

The team will take a closer look at this region using airborne and ground-based instruments. The groups are coordinating their measurements, but each partner agency will deploy its own suite of instruments.

From the end of March through May 1, NOAA, CIRES and U-M researchers will cover the Four Corners area with many platforms and instruments. A NOAA Twin Otter will quantify methane emissions from the region. Two mobile labs—vans outfitted with sophisticated chemical detection instruments—will target specific areas identified by the aircraft to further characterize sources responsible for methane signals. A highly maneuverable, single-engine Mooney TLS airplane will survey the region to locate large methane signals and focus on particular methane plumes to quantify emissions at the facility-level.

As part of another NOAA field campaign, the SONGNEX (Shale Oil and Natural Gas Nexus) 2015 field mission, the NOAA P3 aircraft will also sweep over the area for one or two research flights, capturing information on a suite of chemicals associated with air quality and climate. Winds over the region will be monitored by an array of upward-viewing NOAA wind profilers and a laser wind-measuring instrument. 

From April 17 through 24, a team from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, will fly two complementary remote sensing instruments on two Twin Otter research aircraft. The Next-Generation Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRISng), which observes spectra of reflected sunlight, flies at a higher altitude and will be used to map methane at fine resolution over the entire region. Using this information and ground measurements from the other research teams, the Hyperspectral Thermal Emission Spectrometer (HyTES) will fly over suspected methane sources, making additional, highly sensitive measurements of methane.

With the combined resources, the investigators hope to quantify the region’s overall methane emissions and pinpoint contribution from different sources. They will track changes over the course of the month-long effort and study how meteorology transports emissions through the region.

"This joint campaign is a win-win for all participants," said Christian Frankenberg, a JPL scientist who is heading NASA's part of the effort. "It is a unique opportunity to characterize the region's methane budget using both remote sensing and local measurements in a coordinated effort."

The TOPDOWN 2015 mission is primarily funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office, with additional support from the National Science Foundation (Air Water Gas), NASA and the Bureau of Land Management.

The research team includes scientists from CIRES, NOAA ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division, Chemical Sciences Division, Physical Sciences Division, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the University of Michigan, Bureau of Land Management, and the state of New Mexico.

CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

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CIRES is a partnership of NOAA and CU Boulder.

This is a joint release of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), NOAA, NASA, and the University of Michigan (U-M).

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