The former Soviet republic is one of the world’s worst emitters of planet-warming methane. Its exported natural gas is becoming crucial to China.
Carrie Herzog was sitting at her desk in Montreal one day in early 2019, studying satellite images for signs of mud volcanoes. These geological oddities, common around the Caspian Sea, can belch greenhouse gases. Herzog’s job as a technician at GHGSat Inc., a Canadian company that monitors emissions, is to identify individual pieces of the planet-warming puzzle. Her eye caught something strange on the edge of an arid, wind-scoured stretch of desert in Turkmenistan. Something that shouldn’t have been there.
Stretching north from a clutch of industrial structures in the former Soviet republic were two jagged slashes more than three kilometers long, captured by the satellite’s imaging spectrometer, an instrument that allows scientists to identify gases based on how they reflect light. Surprised, Herzog summoned a colleague. Then their superiors directed the satellite to take a closer look on its next pass. Emissions-spotters at SRON, a space-science institute in the Netherlands, agreed to examine data from one of their orbital monitoring systems. The additional measurements left the GHGSat team in no doubt. They had picked up one of the largest releases of methane ever observed in real time. (…)
After discovering methane belching from the Korpezhe field, GHGSat executives knew they couldn’t just sit and watch the gas escape from half a world away. “We decided that we needed to see if we can do something about it,” Germain, the company president, recalls.
He soon learned that it wouldn’t be easy. No one responded when GHGSat contacted Turkmengaz. Not sure what else to do, Germain asked the Canadian foreign ministry to see if it could get someone’s attention in Ashgabat. When that failed, he tried some European governments, which didn’t have any luck either. It was only after those two sets of diplomats asked American counterparts for help that Germain received word that the Turkmen government was looking into the problem. Not long afterward, GHGSat’s orbital surveillance revealed some good news: The methane releases at Korpezhe had stopped.
Germain’s team kept checking periodically, looking for any resurgence. For almost a year they saw none. But in early April 2020, the images coming back from space began to look different. Where previously there’d been bare sand, they were suddenly streaked with irregular blotches. Deep in the Turkmen desert, the methane was leaking again.
Note: picture at the top shows the Darvaza well, not the Korpezhe one discussed above. Darvaza's "Gates of Hell" are one of the few natural eternal flames in the world.