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(Photo: Etienne Girardet / Unsplash)
Gas cows have long been the main culprit for greenhouse gas emissions, but this is the first time we have been able to confirm their production from space.

GHGSat Inc. manufactures and manages remote sensing technology to track global emissions. On March 2, the company sent a group of high-resolution satellites (each said to be the size of a microwave oven) into orbit to track emissions from cows at the Bear 5 warehouse in the San Joaquin Valley in California. The satellites detected a total of five emissions ranging from 361 to 668 kilograms per hour. Although these figures seem insignificant at first glance, GHGSat he says this level of production, maintained in one year, would “lead to the release of 5,116 tonnes of gas – enough to power 15,402 homes”.

The company’s technology can be used to detect emissions that most public satellites miss, including those from industrial facilities. But cattle breeding is a unique challenge: the belching of cows is small enough to be quickly carried away by the wind, but still powerful enough to collectively affect the pace of climate change. Ground-based meters, which have historically been used to measure different types of emissions, are time consuming and can only scan small areas at a time, while sensors installed in high-coverage aircraft are expensive to operate. According to GHGSat, satellites take the best of both technologies with their ability to cover large areas of land while keeping operating costs low.

Illustration of the GHGSat satellite used to monitor livestock emissions. (Image: GHGSat)

Repositories (areas intended for fattening large groups of animals), such as Bear 5, are thought to make a significant contribution to wider greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture. Cattle, sheep, goats, and other animals involved in the meat and dairy industries have forest stomachs that contain microbes called methanogens that help the animal digest solid plant material. Although these methanogens provide the animal with an obvious evolutionary advantage, their digestive functions produce methane as a by-product.

Scientists around the world are working on ways to reduce the amount of methane produced by livestock. Some supplements seem to work, but some (such as antibiotics) pose human health concerns that make the benefits debatable. Others, such as fats, oils and specific types of algae, have been proven effective to reduce methane production from livestock by 15 to 80 percent.

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