Science Based Detection – A Scientific Breakthrough (by U. Khan)

Chapter six in the book The Canadian Environment in Political Context explores the subject of chemical, air, and water pollution. One of the major air pollutants is the compound Sulfur dioxide (SO2). You might have heard of this compound as a cause of acid rain. It is also detrimental to human health and can cause many health problems like respiratory illnesses, breathing problems, and even cardiovascular issues. People most affected are children, the elderly, and people with asthma or breathing problems. The major sources of SO2 are coal based power plants, utilities, and smelters. All in all, this pollutant has a negative impact on human and ecosystem health and it is imperative to know the amount of SO2 being released into the environment.

A recent article published in the journal Nature GeoScience has found a new technique for measuring emissions. The new space based method for measuring emissions has allowed for emissions to be calculated with greater accuracy. Satellites provide data from areas that would otherwise be inaccessible. The raw satellite data is than analyzed using specialized software to estimate concentrations of SO2 emissions. The research study is also interesting because it has a Canadian contribution; the research was conducted through collaboration between NASA and Environment and Climate Change Canada. The data was collected by Ozone Monitoring Instruments onboard the NASA satellite AURA, which launched in 2004. According to NASA, the study revealed 39 unreported sources of toxic sulfur emissions. These emissions combined compose almost 12% of the entire sulfur emissions of the world and thus have serious impact on the scientific models calculating effects of sulfur emissions on the environment. The majority of the unreported emissions are from areas in the energy rich Persian Gulf, with some sites in Russia and Mexico. There is some uplifting news however, as the data that showed decreasing SO2 emissions across the globe.

Data from the journal article that categorizes countries by percent of missing SO2 emissions. Source: Chris McLinden/Environment and Climate Change Canada

So where does Canada stand in the all of this?

The study found that Canada actually did not have any missing sources of emissions. According to the lead scientist, this can be attributed to the fact that in Canada emissions are measured directly from smoke stacks rather than through estimates as may be the case in other countries. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, 93% of coal based power plants have a continuous emission monitoring system (CEMS) installed. This system can continuously monitor emissions data. Since coal based power plants are a large source of SO2 pollutants, this allows for efficient measurement of SO2 emissions. Canada and the United States have done well to decrease emissions in the past few decades, with Canadian emissions decreasing 58% between 1990 and 2010.


Graph showing Canada’s SO2 emissions from 1980-2010. Source: Environment Canada 2012

The implications of this new space based method are enormous. First, it will allow for global emissions inventories to have accurate data. This data can be used to determine the harmful effects of the emissions in different areas of the globe. Second, scientists believe that this technique can be used in the future to detect other pollutant compounds from space. Lastly, this data can be used to hold nations accountable for their emissions. Countries can no longer hide or misrepresent their emissions data. With the massive decline in SO2 emissions occurring in Canada and the US, countries in the wealthy Persian Gulf must also do more to reduce emissions and create a clean air future.


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