To Flare or not to Flare: Satellite Assessment of Gas Flaring and Climate Relationships

Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) nightlights imagery of the southern Great Plains and Gulf Coast region on March 11, 2013.

Team Location: John C. Stennis Space Center, Stennis, Mississippi

Amber Jones (William Carey University)
Haley Feather (University of Southern Mississippi)
Stephanie McCracken (University of Southern Mississippi)
Timothy Sutherlin (University of Southern Mississippi)

Joseph Spruce (Computer Sciences Corp., Stennis Space Center)
Ross Reahard (DEVELOP Stennis Center Lead)
Jason Jones (DEVELOP Stennis Assistant Center Lead)

Past/Other Contributors:
SSC Spring 2013 DEVELOP Team
Gerald Blanchard, Ph.D. (Space Physics, Southeastern Louisiana University)


Natural gas can be a by-product of petroleum extraction, production, as well as processing, and may be chemically pure or contaminated. Flaring is a common gas disposal practice in the petroleum industry when the collecting, storing, and/or transporting of natural-gas or gaseous by-products is economically or technically unfeasible. Other reasons for flaring may include emergency response, site surveying, and well testing. Although the effect of gas-flaring on the environment remains a research topic, it is recognized as being potentially harmful to organismal health and the atmosphere. For example, recent studies have suggested that climate and atmospheric conditions may influence the effects of gas-flaring heat and chemical emissions on the environment.

This study assessed the potential for data from NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), a sensor aboard the Suomi NPP (National Polarorbiting Partnership) satellite, to assist in the monitoring and management of gas flaring. Gas-flaring events were detected using National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Geophysical Data Center (NGDC) VIIRS nighttime combustion source detection products. Study areas were selected across varying climatic regions in North and South America where dense flare clusters occurred. VIIRS aerosol levels and other trace gas pollutants were then examined for correlation with flare intensity and for seasonal variation. Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) data were used to determine relative humidity levels, and Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) data provided measurements of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). These sensors are aboard the Aqua and Aura satellites, respectively. Also, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations were calculated using two methods. The Japanese Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) provided standard CO2 data products, and VIIRS combustion source data were processed to yield CO2 estimates using an algorithm formulated by the Stennis DEVELOP team during the spring 2013 term. GOSAT CO2 data is comparable to the upcoming OCO-2 and -3 instruments that NASA is developing. This research is important because under the 1990 revision of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to limit industrial pollution source emissions and establish thresholds on ambient levels of certain pollutants including those examined in this study. The EPA compiles the annual Greenhouse Gases Report, documenting emissions data from individual facilities in the U.S. that emit greenhouse gases in large quantities. However, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, under current U.S. policies, routine flare reporting is voluntary. NASA Earth observations have the potential to assist the EPA in detecting gas-flaring sources, measuring emissions, and monitoring levels of regulated pollutants. Moreover, this work is relevant to citizen science groups involved in community-scale environmental monitoring efforts. For example, data gathered through the efforts of civic science organizations could be validated using remote sensing. Similarly, NASA Earth observations can identify locations where additional citizen science observations are needed.

Return to the Summer 2013 VPS page.