UND research reveals truth behind satellite images of Bakken flares

Researchers from the University of North Dakota (UND) Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Science's Department of Earth System Science and Policy have released the findings of a recent report conducted to take a closer look at satellite images of associated gas (i.e., flaring) in the North Dakota Bakken formation.

"Satellite images featured in publications such as National Geographic show the night sky in sparsely populated areas of western North Dakota looking more like the bright lights of large metropolitan areas such as New York City, Boston, or Chicago," said Chris Zygarlicke, EERC deputy associate director for research. "Many published images in the media tout new types of satellite imaging used to examine gas flares but rarely explain how the images are derived."

The UND study sheds light on how these satellite images are being generated and more accurately portrays images of flares at night.

"Results of this work suggest that popular satellite images of North Dakota's night sky are a result of highly processed data from highly sensitive sensors that amplify light and heat sources from a variety of sources, including manufacturing plants, residences, construction sites, and gas production activities," Zygarlicke said.

Using images available through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), UND researchers developed improved methods for identifying, characterizing, and processing flare images for several locations in western North Dakota.

"Our team used the satellite data and products from NOAA to conduct image processing and to produce real flare images," said Xiaodong Zhang, associate professor of Earth System Science and Policy, UND Aerospace. "We were able to generate and validate the images, using actual production data that differentiate flaring emissions from other signals, including man-made light, to accurately depict nighttime satellite images of flares."

The $25,000 project was funded by UND's Collaborative Research Seed/Planning Grant Award Program with funding provided by the UND Provost's Office.

"Since my arrival at UND, I have been a strong advocate of research using interdisciplinary team models," said UND Provost Tom DiLorenzo. "This work resulted in a new, interdisciplinary project at UND, bringing together experts in the fields of atmospheric science, remote sensing, and energy. Additionally, this project enabled the training of graduate students in a new research area, increased prospects for future larger funding awards in this discipline, and furthered the development of valuable relationships between UND, NOAA, and the oil and gas industry."

The full final report showing image comparisons is available on the EERC's website.

 



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