Durango, Colo. – A giant, concentrated plume of greenhouse gas hovers over the San Juan Basin region of the Four Corners.

Scientists first noticed it 2009. It’s mostly comprised of methane gas and is centered over an area that includes the Colorado towns of Ignacio and Bayfield, part of Durango, and an area of northwest New Mexico.

How did it get there? And what are the risks to people living among it?

High Country News Senior Editor (and longtime Durango resident) Jonathan Thompson delved into those questions in a recent article. Part of the culprit is the large oil and natural gas infrastructure in the San Juan Basin. The methane escapes from wells, pipes and valves.

His story, Unlocking the Mystery of the Four Corners Hot Spot, appeared in the magazine’s August 13, 2015, issue.


Methane concentrations across the United States are low on the coasts (dark blues and purples) and higher in the country’s midsection (light blue, green and yellow), with the Four Corners hot spot, the red area highlighted with a circle, highest in concentration (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan.)

Methane concentrations across the United States are low on the coasts (dark blues and purples) and higher in the country’s midsection (light blue, green and yellow), with the Four Corners hot spot, the red area highlighted with a circle, highest in concentration (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan.)

Listen to an interview with Jonathan Thompson of High Country News on the causes and risks associated with the methane field that hangs over the Four Corners:


Thompson’s research into the methane field “hot spot” took him across the entire region. He spent time riding along with scientists in the what’s known as the “Methane Mystery Mobile,” an official-looking van with a long pole that measures greenhouse gas.

According to Thompson, the main ingredient of natural gas — methane — contains 30 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

He also explained how the Four Corners region became a methane “hot spot,” and what the federal government may or may not do about reducing emissions.

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