Lone Pilot Scientist Measured Nation’s Largest Methane Leak

Photo: Stephen Conley flying over Aliso Canyon in January 2016

UC Davis scientist and pilot Stephen Conley flies over Aliso Canyon in January 2016 measuring methane emissions. Credit: Joe Proudman/UC Davis


  • Breaking news release
  • Second release on record-breaking status
  • Exclusive video footage available to journalists  
  • Multimedia press kit with easily accessible assets
  • Media availability with pilot for journalists


When methane began spewing from a natural gas well in Southern California’s Aliso Canyon, UC Davis atmospheric scientist and pilot Steve Conley measured the first and only official estimates of what became the nation’s biggest methane leak in history.

The three-month leak, which began in late October 2015, emitted more than 80,000 tons of methane and displaced thousands of residents in the area. When Conley first saw the measurements, the levels were so high that he thought his instruments were broken.

UC Davis’ key role in measuring the national disaster could have been a footnote in this story, but Strategic Communications’ promotion of Conley — the “lone pilot” – and his work captured the attention of national and international media.


Among the hundreds of media hits were stories in the Los Angeles Times, PBS Newshour, BBC, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Wired, and a feature story in New York Times Magazine. Social media took note, as well: A post on the UC Davis Facebook page received twice the average post reach for the month.

Conley and his partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published the first study on the disaster, demonstrating the value of rapid-response airborne sampling for independent, time-critical, accurate, and detailed information about major chemical releases.

Less than a year after the spill and these promotion efforts, demand for the unique niche of scientific aviation has led Conley to begin a flight certification program for UC Davis undergraduate and graduate students.