Tree Rings, Ecology and Culture in Mongolia
It has been a while since we last updated this blog. The reasons are many. The primary reason for the delay is that we have had singular focus in launching our next project, a project that for many is a dream come true.
Before we launch into that and officially start the 2013 field season, let’s do a quick recap of our team’s efforts since last August.
Our academic year started with a bang: our new research project, which was an unexpected off shoot of our efforts to study climate, fire, and forest ecology, was funded by the National Science Foundation in September 2012.
Since then, our team has spent much time presenting prior results, new preliminary results and processing samples. Many, many samples.
First, kudos to Nicole Davi work improving a tree-ring based reconstruction of the Kherlen Gol in Mongolia (gol = river). Many of the chronologies used were collected between 2009 & 2011 as a part of the Climate, Fire, and Forest Ecology project. The new work, “Is eastern Mongolia drying? A long-term perspective of a multi-decadal trend” can be found here.
Second, we need to congratulate Cari Leland on persisting and publishing the first paper from her thesis: “A hydroclimatic regionalization of central Mongolia as inferred from tree rings “ – link
Cari’s effort set the stage for our second paper on the climate history of the Mongol Breadbasket: “Three centuries of shifting hydroclimatic regimes across the Mongolian Breadbasket“ – link
Finally, Tom Saladyga got a nice piece of his dissertation published with the article, “Privatization, Drought, and Fire Exclusion in the Tuul River Watershed, Mongolia“ – link
We have a few manuscripts in development from our Climate, Fire, and Forest history project, which ends in 2013. And, we are very happy that Byambaa is on the doorstep of completing her dissertation. This project is coming to a very nice completion and we are thrilled.
We are equally thrilled with the start of our new project, “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire”. We’ve gotten a silly amount of press here, here, here, here, and here – it has been great. Both institutions have made nice videos and overviews of the project: here is an example of WVU‘s and here is LDEO‘s. Awareness of this project has been widespread. We meet new scholars from various parts of the world and it seems they are already familiar with the new study. Neil presented preliminary results at the PAGES meeting in Goa, India – that was hard work
Amy Hessl garnered two invites based upon our work. The first was a workshop primarily populated with historians on migration and empires across Eurasia. The setting and out-discipline experience was fantastic. The second was an archeology-based workshop on Chinggis Khaan in Jerusalem – sounds like that was equally hard work!
We are now gathering in Ulaanbaatar to launch the first season of ‘complete’ field work. By complete fieldwork, I mean that we will not only be collecting tree cores and cross-sections from dead trees, but Avery Shinneman Cook will be leading the effort in collecting lake sediments in central Mongolia to better understand long-term environmental history and the impact of the Mongol Empire on the landscape in and around the ancient capitol, Karakorum.
Prior to that, we will hold a 4-day workshop introducing ourselves to our wonderful and diverse team (a dream team? Besides Amy Hessl and Neil Pederson, team members include: Baatarbileg Nachin, Hanchin Tian, Nicola Di Cosmo, Avery Shinneman Cook, Kevin Anchukaitis, Oyunsanaa Byambasuren, and PhD students, Caroline Leland and John Quinn Burkhart) and their specific research. We will visit historical sites and lakes to begin the discussion on how to address some questions originally posed in our grant: did the rise of the Mongol Empire, driven literally by horsepower, benefit from an abundant climate and a surplus of ecosystem energy? Did the construction of the Mongol population, army, and herds of grazers significantly impact the landscape? Answers to the ful climatic context of the Mongol Empire has been a primary goal of the Mongolian-American Tree-RIng Project, (MATRIP) since the mid-1990s. We finally have the chance to address these questions. We do not know the answers yet, but stay tuned.
Brief Observations on an alternative approach to Mongolia:
This is my 9th trip to Mongolia. It is hard to believe that I have visited this far-away land so many times. But, when I smell the steppe as we enter the airport, I relax and hit a new mode that is akin to putting on old slippers. I go through customs with nary a concern knowing that Baatar will be waiting for me with a warm greeting and hug. The drive to UB is filled with the same conversation – “How are you? How is Mongolia? How are things going? How is your family? How are your students? My, Mongolia has changed“. It is wonderful.
What changed for me this year was how I got to Mongolia. I typically venture west and enter through eastern Asia. This time, I traveled east, stopping in Turkey, re-fueling in Bishkek, and then flying over western China and western Mongolia.
The sky was clear upon entering western China and the scenery was stunning. Really. I stopped my movie and just drooled out the window [akin to a dog?]. It adds a few hours of travel time at most, but I’d do it again.
Scenes of Going East to go East
What is the meaning of water? In my everyday life, water is a given. Even this year, when at least one quarter of the US has been stricken by drought, water continues to flow from the tap and my family is unaffected by its scarcity. I remember the California droughts of the 1970s, when my brother and I shared bathwater, I learned not to flush so much, and water was rationed. Even still, our very sustenance, our wealth was not threatened by the lack of water. In Mongolia, as in many other developing countries, people depend on water not just to slake their thirst but to sustain their livelihoods. Mongolian herders must bring their animals to a water body daily. In times of drought, most lakes dry up, leaving only a few “permanent” lakes available to dozens of herders and thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of animals. Steppe lakes also serve as virtual “gas stations” for migratory birds and waterfowl – they are hotspots of diversity. Without water, animals perish, food disappears, and people and ecosystems suffer. In a semi-arid region like the steppe, water allows people and ecosystems to transform solar energy into a mobile and flexible product via photosynthesis and primary consumption by livestock. In Mongolia, water is energy.
As part of our new project, we will be collaborating with Avery Cook-Shinneman (University of Washington) to use lake sediments to reconstruct the ecology of lakes and livestock during the Mongol Empire. Lake sediments can provide a broad array of proxies for past ecosystems. We plan to use some of these proxies to estimate past water quality and a relatively new proxy, Sporormiella, to assess the numbers of livestock present during the Mongol Empire. This summer, my student John Burkhart and I visited a number of lakes near the Orkhon Valley, seat of the Mongol Empire, to recon possible sample sites. In the process, we learned to appreciate the role of permanent lakes in Mongol herders’ livelihoods.
Before leaving for Mongolia, we had worked with Avery to identify more than a dozen lakes to recon. We were going to collect water and surface sediment samples from each lake to assess their potential. But upon our arrival in the Orkhon region, we quickly learned that those lakes no longer existed. The decade-long drought that might be only ending in 2012 had left only a few permanent lakes; we noticed much standing water along the highway compared to 2010. Though the large lakes we identified on Google Earth were starting to fill up again, the fact that they had dried up during a recent drought suggested they had dried up in the past, leaving only an intermittent record of past ecology. We began visiting local herders homes (“gers”) to inquire about permanent lakes.
We had used this approach before to look for old trees but Mongolians are no better than Americans at identifying old trees. They always point you to the biggest, most beautiful tree and claim it’s the oldest – when in fact the scraggliest, ugliest tree is usually much older (Editor’s note: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder). But in the case of lakes, these Mongolian herders were true scholars. Ask any old herder about where to find permanent lakes, and they will tell you in detail the characteristics of all lakes in their region – when they thaw, when they freeze, what kind of plants grow around it and in it, and how likely it is to dry up. I should not have been surprised – their life and livelihood depends on their knowledge and careful management of these lakes.
This kind of ecological knowledge is not new. Mongolians have cultivated knowledge of lakes for millennia. The first permanent lake we visited was less than 5km away from an Uyghur fortress dating to the 8th century.
We have just made it back to Ulaanbaatar after 11 days of in-country travel and field work. While being a bit field worn from working on a lava field for 6 days, we are simultaneously thrilled and in good spirits. It is a bit too early to say, but it seems that Summer 2012 in Mongolia was a success*. It certainly felt like a success to me on the day we came full circle from 2010.
Amy, John, and Sanaa were a day ahead of us and, with John being down with a case of Chinggis’ revenge, Amy and Sanaa spent a full day on the lava field revisiting and re-visioning how we would sample over the following week. The hopeful goal was to collect enough wood to push the chronology near 2000 years in length while having enough samples over the last 1000 years to be able to say something with statistical significance. Sanaa and Amy intensely studied where to find wood and what pieces might be from an earlier era. They accomplished this while collecting 24 cross-sections of deadwood. It was an impressive and hugely helpful first day.
It was necessary to study the characteristics of the deadwood and its geographic distribution across the lava field because, honestly, our first discovery is pretty much the definition of, “a blind hog will find an acorn every once in a while“. During Amy’s and Sanaa’s first day of discovery in 2012, Sanaa came up with the term ‘ocean’ for the large, open areas of lava that are virtually devoid of trees. Because the ocean as a whole can be considered a kind of desert, we found that term ‘ocean’ was correct: this part of the lava field truly resembled a desert. Thus, over the course of our fieldwork, the first verse and drifting characteristics of A Horse with No Name came to mind. The heat was hot. There were plants and birds and rocks and things. Oh yeah, there were a few rocks.
Together we learned that it was on the margins of these oceans that we could find what appeared to be ancient wood. It wasn’t until the penultimate day, however, that we had any sense of what we had accomplished.
Being 5 days in and having collected ~150 pieces of deadwood, we were all a bit burnt, literally and figuratively. Though we had sunscreen and hats, it wasn’t quite enough. We all looked a bit beety. We were also running on fumes. Constantly hiking on jumbled and sharp pieces of lava jars the body and mind. So, on Day 5 we set out for a low-pressure ‘cleanup’ of the lava field. Almost anything we collected that day would be bonus material.
We decided to head towards some of the sample locations from 2010 to see if we could find some of the oldest pieces. Many of the oldest pine cross-sections from 2010 were not GPS’ed due to time, energy, and the afterthought nature of that collection. So, on Day 5 in 2012 we wandering an area we mostly missed in 2012 while at the same time trying to recollect the hazy afternoon in 2010.
About 45 minutes to an hour in, we had our first success. We re-discovered ‘The Logo Tree’. While the day on the lava field in 2010 is still very hazy in my mind (due to my state of being in day 3 of undiagnosed and untreated tonsillitis), the sharpest memory of that day is The Logo Tree.
In 2010 The Logo Tree symbolized the potential for this site. We had spotted some Siberian pine trees, a species I did not see during my first brief visit to this site in 1999 with Gordon Jacoby, Baatarbileg Nachin, and Oyunsanaa (Sanaa) Byambasuren. This tree, though dead, captures many of the characteristics of old trees (charismatic megaflora) while also having the weathered, ‘stressed’ form of trees living on the edge of survival. These trees are often the ones tree-ring scientists use to reconstruct past climate. The Logo Tree screamed, “I, and many other pines like me, are ancient. You might better pay attention. This area could be filled with xylemite.”
So, it was with great joy that on Day 5 of 2012 The Logo Tree was re-discovered. Many picture were taken. Champagne corks were unleashed (in the form of taking the top off our water bottles and taking a swig of water). It certainly lifted me to a higher energy state.
We then spent much of the next few hours scouting for more samples from 2010 and passing through what can be considered a pine graveyard, an area filled with much deadwood and ancient, stunted pine trees.
A specific goal on Day 5 was to locate the oldest piece from 2010, a sample dating to the middle portion of the first millennium of the Common Era. Having not yet found it as the day was drawing to a close, we decided to narrowly focus on finding that piece. We wandered. We scratched our heads. We saw a horse with no name. And then…and then, we hit an area with signs of our past chainsaw work.
Could it be? Might that be The One?
Yes, it had to be. See, that sample, The Eldest of 2010, sits near my desk. It is within arm’s reach in case of impromptu lab tours. I know that sample. The Elder is a bit oval with a characteristic hole that makes it easier to carry or hold up with two fingers. This seemed to be it.
The joy and shock of this confirmation, of coming full circle, was that this log didn’t look as old or as weathered as many of the pieces we had collected over the prior 4.75 days. It didn’t look exceptional. It nearby cousin, cut 2/3rds of the up a dead stem, was equally unimpressive. Yet, The Elder’s cousin dates to the late-1200s.
This particular re-discovery floated us for the remainder of the day and trip back to Ulaanbaatar. We cannot yet say with any certainty, but it seems we really hit our research goal. In fact, we are now concerned that we might have some pieces so old that they will not date – they might actually predate any long chronology we might build from this site. But, if this is a problem, we wish this kind of problem to all of our colleagues.
Now, to some scenes from the field:
*No living trees were harmed in the creation of this post
Saturday dawned a beautiful morning the air was crisp and cool, all of Mongolia had just gotten up at 4 in the morning to watch the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, and traffic was light. It seemed an auspicious beginning for our 2012 field work. The opening ceremonies for our fieldwork had never run so smoothly: Baatar had arranged for our favorite driver, Chukha, to meet us at our hotel at 9am to get an early start. It would be a solid 6-8 hour drive to the first lake we wished to sample Oygi Nuur, 9am did not seem too early. Drs. Baatar and Sanaa plus an undergraduate student, Balja, packed Chukha’s Russian military van at an astounding 7am (does Chukha really get up that early?) allowing us to leave Ulaanbaatar less than 36 hours after we arrived. It was truly unprecedented.
We made several stops on our way out of town, additional groceries, toothpaste, fuel, bar oil for chainsaws and a fruitless search for distilled water (why would we think we could get that here?) but we were still headed out of the smog bubble that is UB before noon. It was a bit later than I had hoped, but still remarkable given our previous trips when it had taken several days to resist the gravitational force of the city. As we left UB and the smog behind, we began to see small signs of the countryside: a few gers (circular felt tents), small herds of sheep for sale, and a couple of trucks loaded with wool. John, my new PhD student, even saw his first Mongolian horses. We could literally taste the Mongolian countryside.
But as we drove up the last rise out of the Tuul River valley, the van sputtered, then stalled. Things seemed routine Chukha was under the van in no time complaining of a loose battery connection. In 15 minutes we were back on the road. At the next rise, the van stalled again, and this time Chukha looked truly distraught. The rest of us piled out of the van, had a picnic lunch, and watched Mongolia clouds. Chukha emerged from under the van looking like his best dog had just died. He couldn’t eat, didn’t want to talk. His van had literally blown a gasket.
On our way back to UB, after a beer and a couple shots with Chukha, we did our best to keep our chins up. After all, what would Chinggis do? We would try again tomorrow. Until then, here’s looking forward to dinner.
People have been looking for 800 years. Looking for Chinggis Khaan, né Ghengis Khan. From the people searching for his birthplace to the people searching for his last resting place. After more than 800 years since his rise from the mountains of Mongolia, Chinggis lives on as a charismatic and almost mythical person. He seemingly rose from obscurity, quelled feuds between tribes, and created the largest land empire in world history. If you read beyond what you likely learned in high school or college, you will see his leadership skills were progressive and exceptional. You will learn that Chinggis has an influence on our world nearly 800 years after his death. From paper money to the pony express, from war strategy to the structure of the human genome, his life has touched generations of humans over the centuries.
When you begin working in Mongolia it is absolutely essential that you learn the importance of the man. Soviet communism attempted to quell his spirit and his importance in Mongolian culture. Mongolians were not allowed last names so everyone could be equal, so no one could trace their family history to the royal family. This, of course, did not work. In a culture that has songs and stories dating back centuries, if you, a native Mongolian, meet a stranger in the woods on the other side of the country and drink tea, break bread, and just lounge, you will soon break into a song that you and the stranger know from the depth of your soul. You will sing, smile, and enjoy a wonderful afternoon with this once distant, now close cousin. That kind of cultural bind does not break under any kind of political pressure. Perhaps it only made it stronger? See, in the late-1990s, soon after the fall of communism, Chinggis essentially rose from the ashes. He was everywhere in Mongolia – TV commercials for cell phones or a brand of vodka. And once you, as an outsider, spend considerable time in Mongolia, especially during Naadam and especially in the open Gobi steppe with people who still live as their ancestors did centuries ago, you understand the importance of the man and you will also begin to chase Chinggis. And, it is with this new project that our group of geographers, paleoclimatologists, ecologists, historians, and ecosystem modelers begin our pursuit of Chinggis Khaan.
Unlike other chasers who came before us, our search for Chinggis is not directly a pursuit of him as an individual. We understand he was an incredible leader who was the life force for the great Mongol Empire. Our pursuit is more contextual. We seek to understand the environmental conditions before, during, and after the rise of the Mongol Empire. In many ways, the success of the Mongol Empire is a historical enigma. At its peak during the 13th century, the empire controlled areas from the Hungarian grasslands to southern Asia and Persia. Powered by domesticated livestock, the Mongol Empire grew at the expense of farmers in Eastern Europe, Persia, and China. Two commonly asked questions of this empire are “What environmental factors contributed to the rise of the Mongols?, and “What factors influenced the disintegration of the empire by 1300 CE? . For a long time (centuries?), it was thought that drought partly drove the Mongols on their conquest in Eurasia. Luckily enough for us, a serendipitous collection of a few pieces of deadwood and old Siberian pine trees suggests essentially the opposite. Our collection of an annual record of drought, currently dating to the mid-600s CE, suggests that the early-1200s were unusually wet. Of course, these findings are very, very, very preliminary – we only have two trees through this time period.
So, with funding from the Lamont Climate Center, National Geographic Society, West Virginia University, and the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program of the National Science Foundation, we are headed back to Mongolia for a fourth straight year to scour the study site that yielded a 1,300 year record for more old, dead wood. With a combined crew from the National University of Mongolia, West Virginia University, and the Tree Ring Laboratory of Lamont-Doherty Observatory, Columbia University and the Earth Institute, we will spend 10 days in the field seeking, documenting, and collecting wooden gold, xylemite if you will.
Part of our crew will also spend about three days at upper tree line on a mountain in the western Khangai Uul (uul is Mongolian for mountain) updating and expanding the collection that suggested that it was warmer during the rise of the Mongol Empire. We are so excited. We have a great crew, will be spending our time mostly in one place, and will have some of the finest scenery in Mongolia in our eyes everyday.
Frankly, we are also excited about our larger project. We honestly do not know what the end results will be. The idea that wet conditions aided the expansion of the Mongol Empire is simply a hypothesis built upon ecosystem ecology, human ecology, and our preliminary results. See, energy is critical for human and natural systems to function, yet few studies have examined the role of energy in the success and failure of past societies. Increased rainfall on the Great Gobi Steppe should allow the grassland to capture more solar energy. Greater grass production logically would have allowed the Mongol Empire to capture, transform, and allocate this energy through their sheep, horses, yak, etc. In turn, this should have allowed greater energy from which Chinggis could develop a larger and more complex social, economic, and political system.
Feeding tree ring based climate history into an ecological model, we plan to investigate how past climate influenced grassland productivity, herbivores, and, thus, energy flow through the Mongol ecosystem. These data will be compared to historical records on the empire and sediment records from lakes that can estimate herbivore density.
Much has been made about the demise of cultures as a result of a downturn in climate or degradation of their environment. Our estimates of energy availability and environmental quality allows us to investigate whether the contraction of the empire was related to drought, cold, declining grassland productivity, or poor water quality associated with rapid urbanization and climate change.Thus, as part of our larger project, we will test the hypothesis that the arc of the Mongol Empire was influenced by the energy available to nomadic pastoralists for building a mobile military and governmental force sufficient to conquer and govern a significant portion of Asia and Eastern Europe.
We leave in less than two weeks. As happens each year around this time, memories of past trips are revived and we begin seeping back into the Monglish culture that develop on these trips. We look forward to re-uniting with colleagues like Baatarbileg Nachin and his students like Bayaraa. A highlight this year will be working alongside a Mongolian postdoc, Sanaa, who Neil met as an undergrad in 1998. It will be an honor and pleasure to work with Sanaa again. Mongol phrases and words are bubbling up from the depths of our grey matter. Mongolian music is spinning nearly full-time in one household; a soundtrack for this year’s fieldwork is coming into shape.
We hope to catch a set of Altan Urag, a rising rock band in Mongolia. To us, they represent some of the cultural struggle in Mongolia today: “How to we maintain the qualities we are so proud of during the height of our empire, as new or external culture moves into our land?” and “As commercialization in the post-communism era (including a ‘gold-rush’ in the mining industry that created one of the fastest growing economies in the world) pushes and pulls us, how do we maintain who we are?” Altan Urag and young Mongolian artists are reaching back in their history for symbols and sounds that make them distinctly Mongolian. At the same time, these artists keep their eyes and ears open to the new possibilities of their larger world. Similar to how Chinggis melded European and Chinese technology to forge his great empire, many of today’s young Mongolians blend their history with external elements to create a new Mongolia. We cheer these efforts on. We are big fans.
The silence you may have heard since our last post was the sound of microscope lights flickering, measuring stages gliding, brains grinding, numbers crunching, and poi dogs pondering. We wrapped up all planned field work last summer for our research grant on climate, fire, and forest history in Mongolia. We have transitioned from the field-intensive portion of the grant to the data and publication phase of the scientific process. We have presented research in various meetings and settings and have earnestly begun to put our findings to our peers to begin the publication process. We are also transitioning to a new vein of research in Mongolia that gets to the title of this blog. It has been a long time coming.
First, Dr. Amy Hessl was inspired by the forest in transition on Solongotyin Davaa. This is the famous forest where global warming was first reported in Mongolia. High elevation forests are rare to burn. So, the thought that a landscape with wood that has been on the forest floor for more than 100o years became an important part of Amy’s summary on “Pathways for climate change effects on fire: Models, data, and uncertainties“.
Next, Amy led a slew of us in a publication summarizing our initial findings of fire history from the northern edge of the Gobi Steppe to Mongolia’s border with Russia near Sükhbaatar City. With the glaring exception on Bogd Uul, this paper, “Reconstructing fire history in central Mongolia from tree-rings“, gives a quick glimpse into the fairly persistent fire regime across central Mongolia over the last 280-450 years.
NPR recently finished a series of reports on the environmental and cultural transitions currently happening in Mongolia as a result of climate change and the massive mining boom underway. The post that caught our attention was the one on “Mongolia’s Dilemma: Who Gets The Water?” Water has been a focus or the Mongolian-American Tree-Ring Project (MATRIP) since the beginning (see MATRIP’s major publications on this subject here, here (get the streamflow data here), here, here). So, we are happy to announce that this rich vein of research has continued with the fire history research grant by first filling an important gap in the MATRIP network and then having several manuscripts on this subject in revision or review.
One paper that we are quite excited about is an analysis of drought variability across Mongolia’s ‘Breadbasket’. We were taken aback in throughout the last three field seasons by the large-scale revitalization of Mongolia’s agricultural sector. It was surprising to see center-pivot irrigation and large tracts of fields in northern Mongolia. This cultural change is intended to transition Mongolia towards agricultural independence for its growing population. Our analysis highlights important differences in drought variation for the eastern and western portions of the breadbasket region. Stay tuned!
Finally, we are headed back to Mongolia this summer to begin pilot work on new research currently funded by the Lamont Climate Center, The National Geographic Society, and West Virginia University. As hinted in our last post, we will begin field work to determine if there was a warmer and wetter climate during the rise of Chinggis Khaan’s Mongol Empire.
Really – stay tuned!
Amy Hessl is featured on National Geographic radio about our team’s discovery of ancient deadwood that suggests the rise of Chinggis Khaan was associated with increased rainfall. Listen to learn more.