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Technology

A Japanese satellite serves as Earth's guardian in the sky

Japan's Ibuki observation satellite collects data on greenhouse gases. (Courtesy of JAXA)

TOKYO The Paris Agreement on climate change took effect recently, but a key player in this international effort has already been working nonstop on this mission for years, delivering valuable data to help in the fight against global warming.

That tireless workhorse is Japan's Ibuki observation satellite.

Under the international framework, each of the more than 190 participating countries and territories will attempt to meet individual environmental targets. The ultimate goal is to slash greenhouse gas emissions to virtually zero in the latter half of this century. Information gathered by Ibuki will be crucial to making that possible.

The satellite was jointly developed by Japan's Environment Ministry, the National Institute for Environmental Studies and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, known as JAXA. Launched into space in January 2009, it is the world's first satellite dedicated solely to measuring the concentration of methane and carbon dioxide -- the two major greenhouse gases -- in the atmosphere.

Ibuki has gathered data on the reflection of sunlight on Earth's surface, as well as on infrared rays radiated from the surface or the atmosphere, at 56,000 locations across the world. Those readings are used to estimate the concentration levels of CO2 and methane, and thus get a clearer picture of how much carbon is being absorbed or released at a given point. The data is so precise that the range of error is a mere 1-2 parts per million.

"The margin of error was bigger in the beginning," said Tsuneo Matsunaga, head of the Satellite Observation Center at the NIES. "But we have managed to adjust the small elements in data processing to minimize the error."

Ibuki has been the only satellite dedicated to the mission since the first greenhouse-gas observation probe, launched by Europe in 2002, was retired in 2012.

ESTIMATES BECOME FACTS In late October, the Environment Ministry and its partners announced that the seasonally adjusted average whole-atmosphere concentration of CO2 topped 400ppm earlier this year for the first time ever.

Data from the Ibuki satellite has been used in 126 joint international studies, including projects led by researchers from the U.S., China, Europe and Russia.

Official emission data cited by individual governments is typically based on estimates that factor in the sources, such as fossil fuels, or data collected from aircraft. Pairing this data with information collected by equipment such as Ibuki can improve the accuracy of the numbers to the point where estimates become facts.

For instance, one study involving the satellite confirmed that the concentration of CO2 in urban Los Angeles was 3.2ppm higher than that in surrounding areas. Researchers had assumed such a gap existed, but the study was able to confirm it as fact.

Another study proved that CO2 absorption in Europe, extending to the western side of the Ural Mountains, was greater than had been believed. According to data from Ibuki, 1 gigaton, or 1 billion tons, of CO2 is absorbed a year in the region, compared with the previous estimate of 0.4 gigaton.

Findings based on data gathered by Ibuki have also indicated that methane output in the U.S. has risen roughly 30% over the past decade.

Predicting with any accuracy total methane emissions by adding up estimates for the various sources -- from farmland to lakes to coal mines -- is extremely difficult. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has claimed that the increase is not attributable to human activity. But the recent shale gas boom in the U.S. could be a culprit. The new findings suggest that in-depth research may be required.

Collecting data over a span of years is essential for monitoring the global environment. Ibuki's intended lifetime expired two years ago, but it is expected to remain active for several more years at least, largely thanks to secondary batteries and extra observation equipment loaded on the satellite.

After it is retired, the OCO-2, a carbon-observing satellite launched by NASA in July 2015, will continue the mission. Looking further ahead, Japan is preparing to launch a successor to Ibuki in 2018.

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