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Enhancements in NO2 and SO2 amounts over the Canadian oil sands

Data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) show distinct enhancements in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2 ) over a region of surface mining in the Canadian oil sands.

The oil sands are located in the north-east corner of the province of Alberta, Canada and contain the second largest reserve (after Saudi Arabia) of oil globally.

Landsat figure Landsat detects land use changes (deforestation) over the region of surface mining operations. Aura figure Aura figure
Shown along the top are maps over a portion of the oil sands where extensive surface mining occurs: a NASA LandSat image from 2009 indicating vegetation removal in the region of surface mining (left), OMI mean NO2 (middle), and OMI mean SO2 (right). OMI data were averaged over the period 2005-2010. White values indicate background levels, increasing through yellow-orange, with brown-black the largest. Maximum values clearly correspond to the location of the industrial activity.

Aura figure
Aura figure
The time graph shows that NO2 has been increasing at a rate of 10%/year over this period. SO2 trends have not yet been assessed. Maximum NO2 and SO2 values are comparable to those seen over large North American power plants.

It is expected that oil production will double and annual capital investments will reach $20B by 2020 further highlighting the need for monitoring pollution in this area. These results make use of improved mapping techniques able to resolve detail down to 10 km. These are the first satellite-based results of pollution over the oil sands.

+ Earth Observatory Feature : Emissions from Oil Sands Mining
+ AGU Press Release : Oil sands pollution comparable to a large power plant



McLinden, C., et al., (2012), Geophysical Research Letters, in press
Feature Released 02.07.2012



Reference: McLinden, C.A., V. Fioletov, K. F. Boersma, N. Krotkov, C. E. Sioris, J. P.Veefkind, and K. Yang, Air quality over the Canadian oil sands: A first assessment using satellite observations (2011), Geophysical Research Letters, in press, 2011GL050273R. Boersma, K. F., et al. (2011), An improved tropospheric NO2 column retrieval algorithm for the Ozone Monitoring Instrument, Atmos. Meas. Tech., 4, 1905Š 1928, doi:10.5194/amt-4-1905-2011. Krotkov, N.A., S. A. Carn, A. J. Krueger, P. K. Bhartia, and K. Yang (2006), Band residual difference algorithm for retrieval of SO2 from the Aura Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI), IEEE Trans. Geosci. Remote Sens., 44, 1259-1266.

Data Source:
  • Tropospheric NO2 data (DOMINO Version 2) from the Dutch/Finnish OMI on board the NASA Aura satellite.
  • Operational PBL SO2 data from the Dutch/Finnish Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) on board the NASA Aura satellite.
  • NASA LandSat image obtained from Earth Observatory.

  • Technical Description of Figure:
  • Upper left: NASA LandSat image showing land changes (white color indicates deforestation) in the region of mining operations.
  • Upper middle: OMI annual mean tropospheric NO2 vertical column density (VCD) in units of 1015 molec/cm2, averaged over 2005-2010, shown on a 1x1 km2 grid and calculated using an averaging radius of 8 km. Large NO2 emission sources are Syncrude (left black dot) and Suncor (right black dot).
  • Upper left: OMI summertime mean tropospheric SO2 VCD in units of 1015 molec/cm2, averaged over 2005-2010 shown on a 2x2 km2 grid and calculated using an averaging radius of 24 km. Large SO2 emission sources are Syncrude (left black dot) and Suncor (right black dot).
  • Lower right: Time series of seasonal OMI NO2 total mass of the NO2 enhancement in tonnes. Also shown is the fit to the time series using a trend model with constant, linear, and annual harmonic terms and the calculated linear trend and trend uncertainties. The rate of emission throughout the year is roughly constant. The seasonality of the NO2 is due to its changing chemical lifetime.
  • Significance: This is a first study of the abundance of NO2 and SO2 over the Canadian oil sands, based on UV/visible nadir-viewing satellite instruments. A trend in the mass of the NO2 enhancementŠthe quantity most representative of NO2 emissionsŠof 10.4±3.5%/yr (2005-2010) was found to result from increases in both the maximum pollution levels and the total area of the enhancement. SO2 pollution values over the oil sands are similar as those of large power plants. This highlights the importance of satellite observations in providing a macroscopic or comprehensive view.

    Relevance for future science: Aura OMI will continue monitoring anthropogenic NO2 and SO2 pollution sources from space to detect trends in aerosol and ozone precursors to provide an overlap with ESA Sentinel-5 precursor mission (TropOMI) planned to launch in 2015. The Decadal Survey recommended the Geostationary Coastal and Air Pollution Events (GEO-CAPE) tier 2 mission, which is planned to launch after 2020. It will allow more frequent monitoring of anthropogenic NO2 and SO2 pollution over N. America, including the oil sands region. A next generation, OMI-like sensor is being considered by the Canadian Space Agency for inclusion on the Polar Communication and Weather (PCW) mission scheduled for launch in 2018. It would monitor SO2 pollution over the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.