Public Lab Research note

Skytruthing the Bakken Shale

by davidmanthos | September 01, 2013 05:10 01 Sep 05:10 | #9086 | #9086

UPDATE: The launch was a success! Read our first report at -

For the past year, our satellite monitoring of infrared data from around the world has detected immense amounts of light and heat coming from natural gas flares in North Dakota's Bakken Shale. A recent study concluded that 30% of the natural gas produced in North Dakota is being wasted by a process called flaring, and the CO2 emissions alone are equivalent to the annual emissions of 1,000,000 automobiles.This does not even touch the unknown air quality impacts from burning fracked gas in large, open flames at ground-level. To study this issue further, we are teaming up with a non-profit called Space For All to send GoPro video cameras, a hacked point-and shoot camera, and air quality sensors on a weather-balloon to the edge of space (well, the upper tropopause). Our goal is to examine air quality and infrared emissions from oil shale fracking and flaring.


But what is flaring and why is it an issue? Flaring is the practice of burning off natural gas to dispose of it, primarily this happens right after a well is put into production or when other methods of using the gas are more expensive to implement than its market value. Operators do not want methane (the primary hydrocarbon in natural gas) accumulating on their wellpads where it can explode, and burning it off is slightly less harmful to the climate than venting it directly to the atmosphere.

But there is so much flaring going on that the fields around Williston, North Dakota positively glow, and there is limited information on other air quality impacts from flaring all of this gas produced as a by-product from fracking for oil.


Space For All's Spencer Gore working on tracking software along one strut of the instrument package.

Backed by a crowdsourcing campaign at Indiegogo, we have traveled out to North Dakota to groundtruth satellite detections of flaring, and launch this instrument package to the edge of space. We will combine our ground observations with detections from the balloon rig, and compare that to satellite data to measure the amount of natural gas flaring there. The groundtruthing mission will help us definitively test the accuracy of our satellite-based flaring detections, and we hope to gain some useful observations from the cameras. Additionally, we want to see just how effective these air quality sensors are and how that can be used for future environmental monitoring. The more good data we can collect, the better we can do to help groups that are working to reduce and eliminate environmentally damaging practices around the world.

We are hard at work now assembling the equipment and running the programming, but will post more on our results as the mission progresses. Become a mission sponsor (which has some fantastic rewards like an embroidered mission patch) or just follow our story at:


This is excellent! thank you for pursuing this project. Have you considered using solar hot air balloons instead of helium? it would lower your altitude to about 20,000ft, and they can't fly at night, but they only cost ~$5-10 per flight.

e-mail me (mathew at publiclab) your address and I'll mail you a 12' balloon envelope.

Is this a question? Click here to post it to the Questions page.

Reply to this comment...

This is amazing, I am so inspired by this project -- good luck!

Reply to this comment...

Thanks Matthew and Liz! The project as a success, we are going through the video and data now. Hope to think about ways to make this more accessible to DIY monitoring, and solar balloons sound like a great option to reduce costs. In addition to being useful, it's a lot of fun! Still, a lot of the cost is not the balloon, but the hardware on the rig and tracking to retrieve it later...

Reply to this comment...

Any updates or sneak video previews?


Is this a question? Click here to post it to the Questions page.

Reply to this comment...

Yeah I'd love to hear what's going on!

Reply to this comment...

A teaser of the footage is here, we're still working on getting the video together.

I think we'll release mid-January, in conjunction with a global flaring map we are producing. The launch and footage we got was fun, but the biggest value was groundtruthing daily satellite detections so we can sort out flaring activity from a big bonfire in your backyard. I'll be sure to post the video when we finally have it up.

Thanks for asking!


Reply to this comment...

Login to comment.