Penn State students hit the road to investigate greenhouse gas emissions

Matthew Carroll
May 30, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State student Colton Milcarek recently loaded a suitcase-sized instrument into a car and set out across State College to sniff out potential greenhouse gas leaks.

Thanks to this portable new technology, Milcarek and a team of other meteorology and atmospheric science students were able to measure carbon dioxide and methane levels from a moving vehicle while driving past urban development, agricultural fields and steam power plants around town.

“We wanted to see how leaky the State College area is and find where there are spikes in greenhouse gases,” said Robert Johnson, another student who participated in the project. “Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and methane warm the planet, so these are big indicators about what’s happening in terms of climate change.”

The students monitored greenhouse emissions around the State College region on eight trips during the spring semester as part of a class offered by the Department of Meteorology and Atmospheric Science. They found four locations with persistently elevated methane levels indicative of persistent sources but no very high concentrations.

“The biggest finding is, even though there is methane pollution in the area, it’s not a huge amount,” Johnson said. “However, things could be better, and there are things people can do, like fixing leaky pipes or using alternative sources of energy.”

The class recently presented its findings to the State College Borough sustainability committee. Borough officials said they want to begin working with the Centre Region Council of Governments to get a better reading of the area’s greenhouse gas inventory and improve air quality.

Scientists have studied greenhouse gas emissions in cities like Boston and Indianapolis, but research on how much carbon dioxide and methane urban areas emit remains limited. Portable sensors make collecting data in places like State College more feasible, said Ken Davis, professor of atmospheric and climate science in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, and instructor of the class.

“Methane emissions are relatively poorly quantified,” said Davis. “Leaks don’t report themselves, and small leaks are hard to find. We have estimates of urban methane emissions from the Environmental Protection Agency, but the data to evaluate these estimates are limited.”

In State College, the students found carbon dioxide levels largely increased in areas with more vehicle traffic. They discovered elevated methane levels near the agricultural fields and by the wastewater treatment plant, and behind CATA buses, which run on natural gas. Natural gas engines are known to leak a small amount of their fuel, said Davis. There also were two to three persistent sources that could not be identified; Columbia Gas checked these locations immediately upon being informed of them. 

“Columbia Gas was extremely responsive," Davis said. "This may be why we found so few unidentified sources in State College."

The results provide a better understanding of how State College sources are contributing to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Local data also complement information collected from larger-scale measurement systems like instrumented towers, satellites and airplanes.

“If we can come up with some methodology to measure carbon dioxide emissions, or if something we did in our study can be taken and applied in other research, then I think it’s very valuable data,” Milcarek said.

The students in the class largely designed the project, picking routes for sampling, forecasting weather conditions on field days and analyzing the results.

“We had equipment recording the concentrations and paired it up with a cell phone app, which actually took GPS coordinates at each location we tested,” said Milcarek. “We coupled those two systems together and got the spatial and temporal resolution of methane and carbon dioxide concentrations in State College.”

Johnson said the writing-intensive class gave students important experience conducting field work and in explaining complex science in a way that’s accessible.  

“Through this class, we are becoming better writers and better thinkers,” Johnson said. “Writing is the process of organizing your mind, your thoughts, and I think that’s what this class is really doing for us. The research is so intricate, so detailed and so technical that to be able clearly communicate about it is so crucial and helps us to become better scientists and researchers.”

  • A Penn State student prepares to take samples of greenhouse gas levels around State College.

    Adam Savary, a Penn State meteorology and atmospheric science student, prepares to collect greenhouse gas data around State College. 

    IMAGE: Anthony Preucil

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 30, 2019