Carbon Mapper: A Collaboration to Map Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Mark Altaweel


The race to better map and understand our greenhouse gases is intensifying, as lofty climate goals means we are going to need to better identify and keep account of our planet’s greenhouse gas emissions. A new, non-profit organization, Carbon Mapper, is attempting to create better ways to pinpoint methane and CO2 emissions. These efforts reflect an increasing trend of closer collaboration between government, scientists, and technology experts that are trying to better address the climate crisis.

What is Carbon Mapper?

Carbon Mapper is an organization that has the state of California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Bloomberg Philanthropies, High Tide Foundation and RMI. For now, perhaps the most important product of this consortium is a hyperspectral satellite constellation that will have the ability to find, quantify and track methane and CO2 emissions.

A methane plume detected by NASA’s AVIRIS-NG in summer 2020 indicates a leaking gas line in oil field in California. The operator subsequently confirmed and repaired the leak. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.
A methane plume detected by NASA’s AVIRIS-NG in summer 2020 indicates a leaking gas line in oil field in California. The operator subsequently confirmed and repaired the leak. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Tracking greenhouses gases will be critical in the coming decades as countries attempt to reduce emissions to net zero or close to it. Decisions that respond to emissions need to have rapid and actionable data for science-based decision making, as stated by Riley Duren, Carbon Mapper CEO. The satellite constellation will allow relevant greenhouse gas data to be obtained at a much finer scale, down to a building site, so that better decisions can be made around where and when emissions are increasing.

Mapping Intermittent Emissions

Current challenges include mapping intermittent emissions, which can appear and disappear quickly, but have potentially a major effect over time on the planet’s overall greenhouse emissions. For instance, burning of forests is a major emitter not only because of the burning but, by removing trees, sources of carbon sinks are also removed. Such events can happen at large and longer-time scales, but many smaller fires are rapid but can have cumulative effects on the climate.

Images showing concentrations of methane in the gas plume relative to background air, overlaid on AVIRIS-NG true-color land surface images.
Images showing concentrations of methane in the gas plume relative to background air, overlaid on AVIRIS-NG true-color land surface images. Caused by a leaking low-pressure natural gas pipeline under a street, the plume shape varies with changing wind speed and direction. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech, June 1, 2018.

Creating More Spatially Precise Emissions Data

The key with the new satellite data is information should be more spatially precise and timely. The partners will each bring capabilities that will enhance what any one organization can do. Currently, Phase 1 of the plan is underway, with JPL involved in getting the first two satellites developed by 2023.

Phase 2 will have the constellation operational, to be accomplished by 2025. The state of California will use the satellites to monitor industrial and energy sources, while also using data to manage their land, including in fire management, fire prevention, and water management.[1] (Related: Mapping Out California’s Methane Emissions)

A Collaborative Initiative to Map Greenhouse Gas Emissions

What Carbon Mapper reflects is the beginning of science-based guidance to help decision-makers at different levels of society, building on the Satellites for Climate Action initiative that was launched in 2019. This initiative intended to bring governments, philanthropists, environmental groups, and technology companies together, around the use of satellites, to then apply these geospatial technologies to monitor and respond to greenhouse gas emissions and have links between science and policy that enable effective response. In effect, this helps to make scientific data more actionable rather than remote to policy-makers, which has been one of the main failures in our global response to climate change. 

In recent years, there have been increased interest in better mapping greenhouse gases. NASA had launched the Carbon Observatory-3 instrument created by JPL in 2019, which succeeded earlier programmes. This is an instrument, a type of grating spectrometer, used on the International Space Station (ISS). From this instrument, mapping of cities and other locations have been conducted.

Using Satellite Technology to Map Emitters of Greenhouse Gases

For instance, in a recent paper looking at Los Angeles, fine-scale data are observed that allow emissions from CO2 to be measured from power stations and other specific locations, rather than looking at only the broader city or urban region.[2] 

In Europe, the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service TEMPOral is providing greenhouse gas and other gas emissions at 0.1 degree intervals for the entire planet. While the results are not as fine-scale as some of the US systems, they do provide relatively good, timely data on emissions that can be actionable and allow policy decisions to revolve around relevant knowledge of greenhouse gas information.[3]

Efforts by Carbon Mapper reflect an increasing trend by organizations working with government and scientists to create more accurate information on emissions. These trends will mean we should continue to get better data and, as the pandemic has taught many countries as a potentially positive result, close collaboration with scientists will be needed to effectively implement policy decisions that reflect the most accurate data and beneficial policies that limit the impact of the climate crisis.

Carbon Mapper is only one project but the hope is the effort serves as a model for other US-based and international efforts to create closer policy and science-based links and actionable data. 


[1]    More information on Carbon Mapper, the constellation of satellites and consortium of partners can be found here:

[2]    For more on Carbon Observatory-3, see:  Kiel, M., Eldering, A., Roten, D. D., Lin, J. C., Feng, S., Lei, R., et al. (2021). Urban-focused satellite CO2 observations from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3: A first look at the Los Angeles megacity. Remote Sensing of Environment258, 112314.

[3]    For more on European efforts to map greenhouse gas emissions, see:  Guevara, M., Jorba, O., Tena, C., Denier van der Gon, H., Kuenen, J., Elguindi, N., et al. (2021). Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service TEMPOral profiles (CAMS-TEMPO): global and European emission temporal profile maps for atmospheric chemistry modelling. Earth System Science Data13(2), 367–404.


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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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