Four Corners methane buildup alarms scientists

Researchers are scrambling to figure out why the nation’s largest methane cluster is hovering over the desert

Four Corners methane buildup alarms scientists

Massive amounts of methane have “flooded” the Four Corners, according to a new report by the Public Broadcasting Service.

The bright red spot represents the highest density of methane in America and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 10 percent of the nation’s natural-gas emissions have clustered in the region.

The information has so far flabbergasted scientists because it shows extreme city-like buildups in the rural area. Indeed nobody was really looking for the gas in the area and folks were only tipped to the buildup because the European Space Agency sent a school-bus-sized, solar-powered satellite which measured methane-emissions all over the world. ESA lost contact with the satellite in 2012.

PBS points out that the Four Corners are in the San Juan Basin, the most productive basin for natural-gas production from coal in North America. Some 60,000 wells are at work there extracting methane from coal. That said, the gas could be escaping from leaky machinery, seeping from old mines or even off-gassing from untouched coal seams.

Not so mysterious are the effects on the ground, where high-ozone days have led to increased emergency room visits and local government has formed a “Four Corners Air Quality Group” in an effort to mitigate the effects of the cloud of gas looming over residents’ heads. In the short term, methane is 100 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

This spring, atmospheric and environmental scientists, including those from NASA and the University of Colorado, descended on the Four Corners to gather more information about the methane blob. They collected hundreds of air samples by plane and on the ground. The new data should point to some answers, but the findings won’t be available until the end of this year.

You can read the full PBS story here. 


Correction: The original story stated that ESA did not know where its satellite was and that it was a mystery. Indeed, ESA lost contact with the satellite, but the agency still knows where it is in orbit. 

Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan. 

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About the Author

Tessa Cheek

She writes and makes photos about communities. Her book, Great Wall Style, a monograph-profile-lyric essay, is out from Images Publishing. | 720-440-2527 | @tessacheek


  1. Jim_in_Littleton on said:

    The Colorado Independent editors are guilty of sensationalizing the loss of communications with the satellite by suggesting that it mysteriously disappeared. The ESA knows exactly where their satellite is. They just can’t communicate with it.

    I would think that you would be above obfuscating facts in order to dress-up a story. It makes your readers wary of everything they read.

  2. Kyle Harris on said:

    Hi Jim_in_Littleton,

    Thank you for your comment. We have issued a correction to the story.

    Kyle Harris
    Managing Editor

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