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Exceptional SO2 detection due to sulphur mine burning in Iraq

The Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB) monitors in near real-time world-wide volcanic SO2 emissions, owing to its ESA-funded Support to Aviation Control Service (SACS) which integrates satellite measurements from a constellation of seven UV-vis and IR sensors.

The initial objective of SACS is to provide online support to the aviation air traffic management (in case of a volcanic eruption) by means of email notifications and satellite images. Although the system has been optimized for the early detection of volcanic plume, strong anthropogenic emissions of SO2 that take place in many places in the World can occasionally trigger a SACS notification.


Very unusal SO2 plume

On 24 October 2016, 07:08 UTC, the GOME-2 /MetOp-A instrument implemented in the SACS system detected a very unusual plume of SO2 over Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and automatically notified the subscribed users, about 2 hours after the measurement was performed. This notification was confirmed few hours later by the OMI instrument which observed enhanced local SO2 emission in the area (see left Figure 1).

Map SO2 detection


This exceptional detection of SO2 is due to the burning of the sulphur mine of Al-Mishraq by fighting forces. This voluntary act led to the massive release of sulphur species in the atmosphere which could be detected from space.



The subsequent formation of sulphuric acid (see Figure 2 below) in the air had serious impact on air quality over a larger part of Northern Iraq, several civilians died and large numbers of people have been intoxicated and treated for breathing problems. This is the first time such detection of SO2 is monitored by our service.


Since this first detection of SO2 by GOME-2 on 24 October, SACS and its seven instruments have continued to monitor the displacement of the SO2 plume:

  • moving initially on the North-East side of Iraq (see right Figure 1)
  • passing over Iran and the Caspian Sea (on 25-26 October)
  • then over Kazakhstan (27 October)
  • then moved eastward over the South of Russia




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