Browsing online, I came across an article claiming that a handful (15) of the world’s biggest container ships contribute more “nitrogen oxide” (NOx, i guess) and “sulfur oxide” (?) as approx. 760 million cars. No idea if true or false, but I’m reminded of a graphic I saw (maybe on BBC?) a few years ago which showed that satellites could “see” the trails of pollutant gases left behind from space satellites, and that they accurately traced out the shipping lanes all across Europe and the Atlantic.

I went image searching for that picture and came across something else; it’s an article published by the ACCN (Chemical Institue of Canada) showing a similar map of NOair pollution concentration across western Canada. I guess the article is subscription only but I was able to read a cached copy without pictures and I’m assuming the picture that I’ve edited in, is the correct one. I figured other people would be interested.

Article below:


By Tyler Irving

Posted April 2012


[Edit (scybites): picture is low-res, the words say “Athabasca oil sands boundary”, “Edmonton” and “Calgary”]

This map was created with data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) and shows the vertical column density of NO2 over western North America. The footprint of the oil sands extraction operations was created from mining permit data by Global Forest Watch Canada. The NO2 levels over the oil sands operations are comparable to those found over a medium-sized city.

An international team of researchers led by Environment Canada has published the first satellite-based study of air quality over Alberta’s oil sands operation. It shows that levels of certain key gases are low compared to large cities, but that like oil sands development itself, they are increasing at a substantial rate.

Chris McLinden, an expert in satellite remote sensing at Environment Canada, led an international team which studied data from various atmospheric monitoring satellites, such as the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI). These satellites are equipped with absorption spectrometers which can measure the levels of air pollutants like NO2 and SO2 by analysing the wavelengths of light reflected from the earth’s surface. Over the oil sands mining region, an area about 30 kilometres by 50 kilometres, the maximum level of NO2 was 2.8 x 10^15 molecules per square centimetre, while that for SO2 was 1.0 x 10^16 molecules per square centimetre. McLinden says that the NO2 levels are comparable to what one would find in a medium-sized city. “In another one of our studies we looked at some coal-burning power plants. The NO2 and SO2 levels we see over the oil sands regions are about the same as what we would see over a single large power plant,” says McLinden.

Given that NO2 and SO2 are common byproducts of hydrocarbon combustion, it’s not unexpected to find them near sites of industrial activity. Still, the study shows that in the period from 2005–2010, emissions of these two species increased by about 10 per cent a year. “Certainly we need to keep monitoring air quality, both from space and through other methods,” says McLinden. Satellite monitoring will be part of the new oil sands monitoring plan currently being implemented jointly by the Alberta and federal governments. The research is published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Photo credit: NASA/Environment Canada

Disclaimer from website: ACCN the Canadian Chemical News (L’Actualité chimique canadienne) is a publication of the Chemical Institute of Canada, the umbrella organization for the Canadian Society for Chemistry, the Canadian Society for Chemical Engineering and the Canadian Society for Chemical Technology.


Satellite study of oil sands air pollution in Alberta, published 2012 (Canada)