Climate Change and Mongolia

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In using the word “adaption,” I don’t imply that
it’s a successful adaption or that adaption is
always a positive thing — while we can adapt to
the loss of a leg, or a loved one, most of us
would rather not.
Lance Olsen

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” … one of the hundreds of thousands who in
recent years have abandoned their nomadic herding
lives for an urban existence.”

“The biggest problem is that [the warming] leads
to an increasing loss of soil moisture, which is
critical to plant growth,” Goulden said.

The average amount of precipitation has remained
steady. But rains tend to be more infrequent and
heavier when they occur.

“When you have these heavier rains, you get
greater runoff, with less of the moisture being
soaked up by the soil for the summer growth,”
Goulden said
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National Geographic News: NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/NEWS

Climate Change Driving Mongolians From Steppe to Cities
Stefan Lövgren in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
for National Geographic News
February 21, 2008

Lifelong herder Namdag lives in a traditional
felt tent home-or “ger”-among some half dozen
cars in various states of disrepair, an informal
junkyard against the towering, snow-capped
mountains that surround the Mongolian capital of
Ulaanbaatar (Ulan Bator).

“I miss my old life,” said the 71-year-old, now a
world removed from the sweeping steppes he once
called home. “But life out there is too
difficult.”

Namdag, who like many Mongolians uses only one
name, is one of the hundreds of thousands who in
recent years have abandoned their nomadic herding
lives for an urban existence.

The former herders crowd into sprawling townships
on the periphery of Ulaanbaatar, which has
doubled its population in the past two decades.

While there are many reasons for the migration,
observers say climate change is increasingly a
driving force behind Mongolians’ move toward the
cities.

Landlocked between Siberia (Russia) and China,
Mongolia is feeling the impact of global warming
more than most regions in the world.

Over the past 60 years the average temperature in
Mongolia has risen by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1.9
degrees Celsius). In contrast, the average
temperature around the world has climbed only
about 1 degree Fahrenheit (about 0.6 degree
Celsius) in the past century.

The warmer temperatures are drying up Mongolia’s
grasslands, which provide food for the country’s
livestock.

“The Mongolian herding way of life is under
threat from global warming,” said Azzaya,
director of the Institute of Meteorology and
Hydrology in Ulaanbaatar.

Soil Moisture

With its hot summers and cold winters, Mongolia
has one of the most extreme climates anywhere on
Earth.

It also ranks as the world’s least densely
populated nation. On the vast steppes (see photo)
that stretch across northern Mongolia, miles
often separate individual gers, which are moved
by their nomadic inhabitants up to four times a
year according to the seasons.

Men on horseback, wearing long robes known as
“deels,” drive herds of livestock-sometimes more
than a thousand animals at a time-across the
rugged plains, just as their ancestors have done
for centuries.

“Mongolians are very dependent on their
livestock, and the livestock is very dependent on
the environment,” said Clyde Goulden, director of
the Institute for Mongolian Biodiversity and
Ecological Studies at the Academy of Natural
Sciences in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Goulden has studied the climate changes occurring
in the mountainous area surrounding Lake Hövsgöl
Nuur in northern Mongolia.

He confirmed the above-average temperature rise
and added that the warming appears to have
accelerated over the past ten years.

In a region where winters can be long and brutal,
a milder climate would seem to benefit Mongolia’s
herders. But warmer temperatures stunt the growth
of the vegetation that feeds the animals.

“The biggest problem is that [the warming] leads
to an increasing loss of soil moisture, which is
critical to plant growth,” Goulden said.

The average amount of precipitation has remained
steady. But rains tend to be more infrequent and
heavier when they occur.

“When you have these heavier rains, you get
greater runoff, with less of the moisture being
soaked up by the soil for the summer growth,”
Goulden said.

He estimates that 15 to 20 percent of soil
moisture is lost due to the changing climate in
Mongolia.

Fierce Blizzards

Winters have seen the most severe warming, with
warmer temperatures ultimately resulting in more
destructive ice.

“They’ll get a moderate amount of snow, but then
there’s a warm day and the snow melts, then a
cold day again and it freezes,” Goulden said.

“This builds up two inches (five centimeters) of
ice, and the livestock can’t get to the food.

“When that occurs for a month or two, you have a
large number of animals dying of starvation,” he
said.

The changing climate also creates less
predictable weather patterns, and it may have an
effect on a Mongolian weather phenomenon known as
the “dzud,” fierce winter blizzards that
sometimes cripple the country.

Namdag once owned more than a hundred horses,
sheep, cows, and camels. He lost 90 percent of
his animals in the devastating dzud of 1999.

“Only the camels survived,” he said.

In 2005 there were 81 days of extreme weather in
Mongolia, including dust storms, according to
Azzaya, the meteorologist.

“Summer temperatures are not changing overall,”
she said, “but we are seeing an increase in
continuously hot days-nine, ten days straight
with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius (104
degrees Fahrenheit), which is something we
haven’t seen before.”

The many novice herders are easy victims to the
increasingly severe weather, which tests even old
hands like Namdag.

During Mongolia’s Communist rule, which lasted
until 1990, the government limited the number of
livestock in the country to about 15 million.

When Mongolia switched to a market economy and
those state-imposed limitations were abolished,
many Mongolians with little or no herding
experience acquired animals and got into the
herding business.

“Many of the people who lost livestock during the
dzuds a few years ago were new to herding and
didn’t understand how to prepare for [extreme
weather],” said Goulden, of the Academy of
Natural Sciences.

“When disaster struck, they were forced to move to the city.”

Keeping the Tradition

There are 33 million livestock in Mongolia today,
more than ten times the number of people. But
many young people in Mongolia show little
interest in the herding lifestyle.

Outside the provincial capital of Mörön,
18-year-old Mendbayr keeps watch on more than a
thousand sheep from the back of his Mongolian
horse.

His family has been herding for generations, but
Mendbayr has other plans for his future.

“I’m going to the university,” he said. “I want
to become a mechanical engineer like my older
brothers.”

Others are determined to weather the hardships of the herding life.

An hour’s jeep ride north of Mörön, 60-year-old
Baasanjav is preparing to dismantle his family’s
ger to make the winter journey into the
mountains, which offer some protection from the
biting wind that sweeps across the plains.

“I’m not giving up this life,” he said. “It makes me happy to be out here.”

One of his two sons, 27-year-old Purevsuren, has agreed to work as a herder.

Baasanjav watched his son stack sacks of cabbage
onto a horse-drawn cart for the journey north.

“It’s important that our children continue this tradition,” he said.

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