Mongolian Climate, Ecology & Culture
This is the blog for the NSF-funded project studying climate, fire & forest history in Mongolia led by Neil Pederson of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University, Amy Hessl of West Virginia University, Peter Brown of Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research and Baatarbileg Nachin, head of the Department of Forest Science in the School of Biology and Biotechnology at the National University of Mongolia.
We will report here on the observations, trials, tribulations and results of our project. As of August 2011, we have completed all fieldwork. Results are starting to emerge!
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.
By Neil Pederson
As discussed in the previous post, the first half of the field season would be the scientific highlight of the 2011 field season. While we had highlights later on, in terms of finding new stuff, that was it. We knew that would be a highlight because we had a fairly good idea of what was coming next. To our delight, we would be heading back to the small mountain village called Bugant. This is a delight because the family we stay with on trips to the northwestern Khentii Moutains are exemplary in terms of Mongolian generosity.
We knew that we would immediately not only be served fresh tea and plenty of candies and snacks upon our arrival, we also knew that no matter what time ae arrived we would be served a meal. We arrived at about 9 pm and, sure enough, by 9:45 we were fully into our meal.
As always, it was a fun and spirited meal. All the extended family came to visit with us and each other:
We looked forward to the next day’s field work because we were going to one of the most interesting forests we’ve seen in Mongolia – it was an intact, old-growth forest….
However, not all scientific fieldwork is full of exploration and discovery like those fueled by sawdust and mosquito wings. Sometimes, quite often actually, scientific research is monotonous. Even in the field. The work ahead, while in beautiful places, was akin to making the doughnuts. We had to go back to areas we had sampled before, install plots and just core whatever trees fall in those plots. There would be no bird-dogging or seeking out great old trees. What fell in our plots, randomly-located so that they best represented the average forest, ended up being our study trees. Ah, we are not complaining. It is just not as thrilling as the hunt. It feels almost industrial – industrial ecology.
We were a bit leery of this forest as well. When we last sampled in 2009, it turned out to be a cold and wet visit. 2011 turned out to be very much the same. In fact, it turned out to be wetter and colder. It definitely had us shivering in our sleeping bags.
We had expected to complete our work in the first day at the site pictured above. But, after a couple passing showers that were fairly heavy for Mongolia, the temperatures dropped quickly and, well, we started getting cold. We were prepared for this, but somehow this day got to us. We really started shivering and making mistakes. When you start making mistakes when you are cold and wet, that is a good sign to call things off. Not much good can come from continuing. What one can expect is potentially bad data, more mistakes and more mistakes that could become dangerous. So, we called it a day and went fishing.
OK, Baljaa went fishing. Specifically, he went wood fishing. It is a method commonly used to gather firewood in areas with little wood. As you can see, Baljaa, despite being a Mongolian cowboy with more than a hundred horses [he's a good catch, ladies!], struck out. Time to call in the pro:
As you can see, Baatarbileg is still the master!
What did we cook with this wood? Our clothes, of course:
Actually, the fire and wonderful soup for dinner warmed us up. I do not think the devil actually shivered in his sleeping bag.
The next day turned out to be sunny and we finished off this site. We did get one new discovery: a Mongolian lizard. It got so used to being held, or perhaps it was so hungry from the previous cool, wet day, it itself ‘fished’ for food while being held:
The next day found us heading back to the ‘cement patio’ site. This is a favorite site for us as we had a wonderful Mongolian cookout in 2009. What we had forgotten was how far back we had driven into the Khentii Mountains to find this site.
Talk about monotonous [and desperate...like the beginning of 2011, we were desperate in 2009 to find a goldmine site], we drove 20 km on the road below just to find this site. You can hear below how we had forgotten how far back we drove in 2009.
We hit the slopes as soon as we re-discovered the cement patio; it took about 3 hrs of driving to get to this spot. I had not been up this slope yet as I sampled a different slope in 2009. When Amy said it was steep, I really didn’t know what she meant. As you can see, the slope was nearly a 40% slope:
While in the midst of conducting this industrial ecology, the sky decided to open up again. However, the storm didn’t seem as serious as the prior day and we hunkered down for about 20 minutes. Sure enough, the storm passed as we completed most of our work at this site.
The views from this site are pretty spectacular.
Indeed, it is such a special forest that we will have a special post regarding the state and potential future of this part of the Khentii Mountains.
We headed down the mountain back to the patio and found an incredible patch of berries. There were two types of currants and one type of blueberry. It was delicious. In fact, as it was Chuka’s birthday (our other driver in 2009 and 2011), we gathered as much fruit as possible and re-created our 2009 cook out night to celebrate Chuka. It was a fantastic night until yet another thunderstorm crashed the party and sent us scurrying for the tents. All in all, it was a pretty great night.
There is not too much to report for now about this site. It is definitely another old-growth site that Amy has already written about. We saw some amazing specimens for the main conifer species in Bugant and hiked some cool ridges. We saw wolf and bear scat. We were lucky to spend time in that exceptional Mongolian Wilderness. Here are a couple more pictures.
We’ve realized that we have yet to document a bit of our day-to-day lives in the field. Below are some scenes from the valley we nick-named ’Xanadu’ (before we knew it’s proper name). We learned from the man who uses the valley as his winter pasture that it is called ‘West River Valley’. It is definitely a happy valley.
The valley is narrow and natural. You can see below how limited access is to this valley, save horses.
Below is one of the first views we got of the valley – it was a wonderful sight [and site!].
We settled into a patch of forest in the valley bottom. Can you spot our tarp hiding our belongings during the day?
here is our camp site:
in actuality, this really was the Xanadu for the flies!
here is a video of our happy camp site at night, in the Mongolian Wilderness
view to southern portion of our happy valley
By Neil Pederson
When embarking on research in Mongolia, though in all other situations, too, it is best to couch your disposition in two important mindsets: patience and persistence. Perhaps the best way to begin these journeys is to take on an almost Buddhistic mindset and not get too clingy to objects. It is best to let it come as it should. Of course it is easier to type that then to sit in a jeep for a few days and see nothing that warrants sampling like the below. Oh, it is beautiful, but not helpful for study.
It seems like every sampling trip here in Mongolia begins like 2011 did: searching for a goldmine site, but finding little of research value. It has happened so often that I have finaly learned to sit back and have some kind of faith that the trees will appear. This mindset finally paid off during the first leg of our field season. In fact, it paid off so well that by the last day, it seems our bodies were running on sawdust and mosquito wings.
Intellicast.com suggested the field season would be cool, nicely cool. A colleague in Mongolia came back from the field and reported that it would be one of the worst field seasons in terms of insects. So, as Murphy’s Law sort of goes, both expectations trended in the opposite direction as we would like.
After spending about a day and a half of looking for good sites, we finally got a lead through a village elder for potentially old forests. Most of that conversation is recorded below:
Listen to his accent. Can you pick out the word davaa? How about nars? [nars = Scots pine, Pinus sylvestris; davaa = mountain pass]
This is why we should listen to our elders – in the end, they are often correct. The key phrase is “in the end” because as we drove up into the steep and narrow valley he suggested, again, all we saw was this:
Even the drive back down valley held little promise. Baatar had noticed some rocky slopes that might have something good. But, from our perspective, the trees didn’t look as old as we needed [we are constantly on the search for 300-400+ yr old trees so we can learn what the long-term trends and patterns are in climate and ecology]. We decided it was worth a look and shortly after beginning our hike, we found a decent pine with 5-7 fire scars, “ok, this seems ok”.
We continued up the slope and found middle-aged trees (~150-200 yrs) with a few fire scars (4-6). It was fine, but not what we really hoped for.
We finally found a tree a little bit older and with 7+ fire scars. Like Pavlov’s dog, we started dreaming about rewards. We started racing upslope to find more of these trees. Along the way, we started noticing remnant wood – trees that likely died 50-100 yrs ago – that could help us extend our knowledge of fire history back to the 1700s, perhaps even the 1600s!
Having an extra crew member in Erdene, I became the bird-dog: “dog will hunt!” [for old, fire-scarred trees]
I went on ahead and started searching all slopes for old, fire-scarred trees. The slope and bedrock made the work fun. The heat, on the other hand, required rationing a bit on water. I finally treaded up a narrow ridge in hopes of finding more. While hiking this ‘knife-edge’, I kept coming back to the idea that I get paid to do this; I’m a lucky dog.
Perhaps the neatest thing I saw was a planking tree (you know this fad is really getting out of hand when a tree in northern Mongolia planks).
Towards the upper end of the ridge I came upon a couple trees that looked pretty good. I didn’t fully inspect them as I had been ‘out’ for an hour and didn’t hear the chainsaw behind me. I was concerned that I had gone too far ahead. I circled back and found our crew hunched over the saw where I left them an hour earlier. Seems some bad gas hampered the saw and Bayaraa and Erdene were on their way to becoming chainsaw technicians of the first order. They finally got the saw fired up after another 25 minutes and we headed upslope to collect a couple of samples from stumps near the false-peak.
It was now getting late in the day. I was sunburnt, it was hot, we were running low on water and food. Spirits had plunged a bit following the Chainsaw Repair Hour.
I showed Amy the two trees I had spotted on my camera’s small screen and mentioned they were a bit upslope. Our samples were not great at that point and the general feeling was that we should go for it.
We decided to walk halfway there, combine our food and have a small late-afternoon snack (bread, peanut butter, sardines, an apple and some water [but not all of it!]). The energy intake seemed to do the trick. Spirits came up as we walked the knife-edge.
Then, upon closer inspection, we knew that our patience and persistence paid off. Amy was the first to rush over.
And, why not rush? This site finally turned into the Goldmine we were looking for.
We quickly went to work scouring this little pocket of Mongolia for all that it might contain. Bayaraa went to work, retrieved some fine samples and showed off the A1 Sawyer that he is these days.
Again, no trees were killed in the collection of these samples.
Upon further inspection…
Everyone was thrilled. It was time to celebrate hardwork.
The lessons on topographic location, aspect, landform and a few tree characteristics paid off over the next few days as we located the Three Amigos and a Field of Onions.
The next day we headed across the valley and found more of the same. Younger, few scars lower on the slope, a goldmine of older trees and multiple-scarred trees further up slope. Probably the best thing from that day, beyond the other goldmine, were the valley views. The most surprising things were the pivot irrigation fields. The resurgence of the Mongolian agricultural industry has been impressive, as was indicted towards the end of this post from 2010. The presence of pivot irrigation confirms Mongolia’s commitment for food independence.
What drew us out of this goldmine was a peak to the east. It looked rugged and remote. We had high hopes for our next area of study.
We decided to head there immediately as day was falling. It took longer than expected and was nearly dark when we arrived in the new valley. It was indeed isolated and the grasses were tall, suggesting the valley was not heavily used. It was so nice that we jokingly called it Xanadu. We later learned this was someone’s Xanadu. A herdsmen stopped by our camp, we immediately gave him some tea. He was looking for his small herd of horses and told us this was his winter pasture, so it was his personal winter capitol. It must be lovely in the winter.
Of course, the joke was on us. As we finished putting up our tents, the mosquito horde came out. We layered and wrapped ourselves; our source was correct – this was about the worst mosquito season I have experienced in Mongolia. We dashed into our tents soon after dark.
This part of the post will be interrupted to convey the specialness of night in the Wilderness of Mongolia. The only light in the valley was the temporary lamp in the tent next door.
Here is what it sounded like:
During the middle of the night, the mosquitoes were gone and the Milky Way was out!
The next day we went for the rugged peak across the valley. It was getting hot and the initial forest didn’t look so old. But, we found some nice remnant pieces that should lengthen our record.
There was so much material, I got into the sawing act.
We stopped on a saddle around midday for lunch before shooting to the looming and rugged ridge ahead. What do we do for lunch in the wilds of Mongolia? Here is one example.
It was in the forest beyond the saddle where ideas/hypotheses of forest development in this part of Mongolia started bubbling up. Instead of working in young or burnt-over forest, we hit a pocket of ‘old-growth’ forest containing a pine with a 20-30′ fire scar and 12+ scars. It was sitting next to a forest of mixed species and ages. It was a lovely site.
We headed across the minor valley in pursuit of the marvelous looking pines across the way (below).
The area, again, was a goldmine. However, at this point, we had a nice collection of fire-scar samples. So, we went snobbish and decided to collect from the oldest, most scarred trees.
The slope we scrambled up was barren from the last fire and southwest facing. We later learned it hit 93 degrees F around the time we hiked up the open slope. We could feel it. We were on fumes. Even Bayaraa.
Again, efforts were rewarded when we hit The Three Amigos.
This trio of trees really made us happy! They were just what we have been looking for. I’ve not really seen these kinds of scars before, so I exclaimed, “OMG! It’s an onion!”
We retrieved our samples and relaxed for a bit. But, not for long. As we looked out over the valley, we saw and then heard the signs that we should get off the mountain quick.
As we were headed back to our camp, we saw the sky literally open up over the village of Hyagalant.
This storm, actually, turned out to be a benefit. Erdene’s mother was very concerned for our safety; she didn’t know it rained worse in the village than in our little piece of Xanadu. So, the next morning she scolded Baatar enough to come pick us up early. That was fortunate because we went to another ridge that morning (after meeting the herdsman and waiting out a storm). It turned out to be a complete bust. Baatar’s early arrival allowed us to drive to another ridge that would have taken too long to walk to.
What I found soon after taking the picture above was thrilling. In fact, it was the scene below where I yelled, “Field of Onions!”
The pictures below ought to explain the term ‘onion’.
This last day, the day in the Field of Onions, was likely the scientific highpoint of our 2011 field season. We found a high concentration of trees with multiple scars in a new region and the trees are of decent age. The climbing that day was fun, too. But, the battles with the mosquitos and heat left us on fumes. I am pretty sure we were only running on sawdust and mosquito wings [and, sure, some adrenaline].
We’ll top this long post off with a few more pictures.
By Cari Leland
I wish I could calculate the total amount of English Breakfast tea I consumed over the past year. While working on my thesis, tea drinking was an integral part of the process. There is something about that piping hot beverage that inspires thought, creativity, focus, and hard work. Mongolians might also agree that there is great value in tea. In fact, teatime could almost be considered part of their cultural heritage. No meal is complete without a steamy cup of milk tea – a drink that is not only nutritious, but also a symbol of the warm hospitality that is prevalent in Mongolian culture.
Honestly, I was not much of a tea drinker prior to my summer of fieldwork in Mongolia. I remember one day of fieldwork when Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, Byamba, Bayra, and I were on the hunt for old trees. Baatar drove us to a ger owned by some folks that he knew well. The hope was that they could show us the way to good sampling sites. The family greeted us with much warmth, as they kindly offered us yogurt biscuits and milk tea. I sat inside the ger – young children were playing outside, the livestock were grazing happily in the sun, and a partially-logged forest was viewable in the distance. While sipping milk tea in their home, it became abundantly clear why my thesis research could be important.
A significant portion of Mongolia’s economy is based upon the agricultural and livestock sectors (more than a third of their GDP, in fact), and herding, in particular, is an important part of their cultural identity. Therefore, there is concern over how climate change might impact the livelihood of Mongolians. Could the impacts vary spatially? More importantly, how has climate varied spatially over time? Temperatures have generally been increasing over the past few decades, but recent precipitation trends have varied across the country. Precipitation, in general, is a highly ‘local’ phenomenon that varies significantly across the Mongolian landscape. The lack of long-term instrumental records limits our ability to quantify spatial and temporal climatic variability in Mongolia. That’s when tree rings become useful. Annual growth rings allow us to better understand historical variability in climate, and to place recent climate trends in the context of the past several centuries.
The goal of my master’s thesis was to assess hydroclimatic variability across north-central Mongolia using a large network of tree-ring data. Since precipitation is so spatially variable across the country, my goal was to determine if tree-ring data could be used to define hydroclimatic regions (or regions with unique, historical moisture variability). The network consisted of 21 tree-ring sites and three different species (P. sibirica, P. sylvestris, L. sibirica) (see the map below, Fig. 1). Each study site consisted of multiple trees from which core samples were collected. Some of the data were collected over the past two field seasons, while other sites were sampled in the 1990s and early 2000s through the Mongolian American Tree-ring Project (MATRIP). MATRIP is a research collaboration between Mongolian scientists and researchers from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and their work made my thesis possible.
To keep it short and sweet, I will only discuss some of my most interesting findings. After using a rotated principal component analysis (RPCA), and other crazy statistics, on the network of tree-ring data, I found 4 unique ‘regions’ within the network (Fig.2 ). Cleverly, I called them the Eastern, Western, Northern and Central regions. These regions are outlined in red in the figure below, where large circles represent the tree-ring sites that have similar growth patterns over time. After more statistical analyses, it was apparent that these regions likely represent ‘hydroclimatic regions’. As you can see, each region has its own, distinct variability in hydroclimate over time (Fig.3).
Next, I looked at major historical drought and pluvial events across the entire tree-ring network. Pluvials are extended periods of wet conditions – the opposite of droughts. In the next two figures (Figs. 4 and 5), blue colors indicate generally wet conditions, whereas red indicates dry conditions. Figure 4 shows the major drought event associated with each region. Here, it’s obvious that the Eastern and Western regions of the tree-ring network will often have opposite trends. So, for example 1942-1944 (Fig. 4, Top-left) was a major drought in the Eastern region, but it was pretty wet in the Western region. In studying major pluvial events (Fig. 5) – the conditions were pretty wet across the entire network. Some of these results, particularly maps of major drought events, indicate that the Eastern and Western regions of the network are highly unique from one another. This could partly be attributed to topographic differences, as the Western region is located in the Khangai Mountains, whereas the Eastern region is on the leeward side of the Khentii mountains.
If you’d like to see more detailed descriptions of my methods, and other cool results from this study, search for my thesis on the following website: http://wvuscholar.wvu.edu. However, it will not be available for a few more months. You can also contact me if you would like a copy.
After reading this, I hope you can see how my research highlights the extent of spatial and temporal variability in hydroclimate across north-central Mongolia. These results could be used to understand regional trends in climate and to potentially help guide water resource management efforts. Recent severe droughts across Mongolia suggest that water management will be increasingly important in coming decades. These findings are an important stepping stone for further research and will be valuable for producing additional climate reconstructions.
The next big question: What large-scale climate forcings might be influencing climate, and how dynamic are these forcings? It looks like I will need a lot more tea….got milk?
This work would have not been possible without the support of Neil and Amy as my advisors, the expertise of Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, Dr. Nicole Davi, and field help from Byambagerel Suran, Uyanga Ariya, and Bayra. Oh, and of course Tom!
By Amy Hessl
How do you know when you are in wilderness? When you have walked beyond where most people walk, when you have left the road, left the (human) trail, passed the cut stumps and horse dung, climbed up over rocks and through burned birch forest and finally when the easiest route to walk is not a path tread by people but rather the path tread by wolves, moose and deer. The dark forests of Bugant contain thousands of square kilometers of such places.
The Khentii Mountains are steep and largely inaccessible to all but the most stolid hunters. Dirt tracks only passable during dry conditions traverse the mountains and occasional jeeps pass through, but the original forest is largely intact – old growth Scots pine forest with infrequent fires (for Mongolia). The Khentii Mountains near Bugant are the center of conifer diversity in Mongolia. Bugant is the only place in Mongolia where you can see seven native tree species living together (two pines, larch, spruce, fir, birch and aspen) . Towering pines stand at odd angles leering down on currant bushes full of fruit. Animal scat is everywhere – moose, wolf, bear, deer. Cut stumps occur only in the first 100 m from the road, then dissipate as the slopes steepen. There is literally no sign of man beyond those stumps. But we threaten.
Gold mines – piled high with the remains of hydraulic mining (the same technique used in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains during their gold rushes) – creep in to Bugant along the rivers and streams. With them comes money – money for railroads and improved roads that bring the end of the wild. Amazingly, Bugant is unprotected – it exists in its wild state only because of its inaccessibility. It truly is a last great place and worthy of the highest protection. The gold mines play out in a few years, but the slug of sediment will creep downstream for centuries and the mercury used to refine the gold will poison the well-water for just as long. Once perturbed, the wildnerness will be gone forever. Let’s find a way to protect Bugant!
By Neil Pederson
With much thanks to our colleague, Dr. Baatarbileg Nachin, field research in Mongolia gets better each year.
Mongolians generally live at a different pace of life than many Americans and merging schedules to conduct field research can prove to be tricky. I have seen colleagues have their sense of pace challenged here. This year, however, we were packed, loaded and on the road a little over 36 hours after touching down in Ulaanbaatar. It was so quick it caught me off-guard; I almost begged for another day of acclimation.
Despite Intellicast.com forecasting generally cool weather leading up to our trip (70s in the day, 40s at night, which, after the late-July heat wave, had me drooling), the weather changed significantly upon our arrival – it was warm and humid (for Mongolia); it must have followed us over.
Not only did the quick departure from UB surprise us, the smooth road between UB and Erdenet whisked us to less than 50 km from Russia in no time. The only thing that made us hesitate was the brewing thunderstorm in the distance.
The storm forced us to stop and pack items on the roof of our rig inside.
We got back on the road and crossed a major river with many vendors selling fish. It is a sight I had not seen in 7 visits to Mongolia – “fish for sale!”
We stopped in the large, copper-mining town of Erdenet to pick up one of Baatar’s students, Erden. We also took in a fine meal at one of the best restaurants in Mongolia, …huh, it is so good, and perhaps new, that Lonely Planet doesn’t list it. It was Asian themed and upscale; the clientele were young, good-looking and fashionable.
We quickly made it to Erden’s folk’s home in Hyagalant. The town is a lovely, piney village near the Russian border (piney here is used in the southeastern US sense – the village is well-treed and on a sandy plain in the Selenge River Valley. There is a Coastal Plain or Piedmont feel to the land around Erden’s folk’s home).
Upon finally getting out of the vehicle, I felt a large sense of relief and familiarity. First, it was much cooler than UB. Second, the cool air was a bit more humid than the air we had left. It reminded me of cool, summer nights in the Adirondacks. I seriously contemplated sending home for the family and moving to Hyagalant. Erden’s home was unusual in that it was a two-story, log cabin/house. It was very well kept. As we would learn over the next few days, Erden’s parents are kind, hard-working and fastidious. Erden’s home seemed like a bit of Eden to me.
I think what we appreciated most about our temporary residence was the heavily-used, external kitchen (below).
Per Mongolian tradition, within minutes of our arrival we were invited to the table and served Mongolian tea, bread and cheese.
This tradition and their grounding in time and life is one reason I love coming to Mongolia. Mongolians greet strangers warmly, immediately offer drink and food and settle in for a nice visit. Time matters little. Life unfolds as it should, as it needs. People talk, smile and just relax. In many homes toasts are made, gifts are exchanged upon arrival and best wishes are expressed for whatever your goal for the visit might be. These wishes are sincere. For example, a few days later we drove to the southern side of the Selenge River looking for forests to sample. We completely struck out despite much local advice. Erden’s father truly felt terrible as we left later that day for another forest. I didn’t know what he was saying, but his feelings were obvious.
Anyhow, this outdoor space was the center of activity during our time there. Folks came and went. We had many meals and visits at that table. After success in this area, which will be relayed later, the family’s farm workers came by to discuss the haying season and operations. It turned out to be a spirited discussion:
These visits and experiences are a welcomed reminder as to what should ground our lives – being kind people and moving at a pace that is necessary at that moment.
Another thing I love about returning to Mongolia is the lack of light pollution, especially around the time of the Perseids. I am so much more of a stargazer in Mongolia. How could one not be? This is what night looks like, even in the village of Hyagalant:
After they cleared out their living room to make it our bedroom for the night, we headed for the forest the next morning. Our first stop was a davaa (mountain pass) just outside of town. It looked amazingly like a davaa we visited 2 years earlier, but many kilometers away. The forest was young, but held no prospect for research. However, we did happen on an old marker that Baatar said had Tibetan script on it:
Perhaps this was a road signpost from 100,000 days past?
We then headed to another flat, piney forest on another side of town. While this forest also had large pine and some fire scars, it was not quite old enough for the goals of our study. While driving through the forest, we were brought to an important, local ‘landmark’ – the Hanging Tree.
The story behind this tree is that a Russian general or military leader attempted to make a significant amount of the land around Hyagalant his own, personal Idaho. The locals, expectedly, didn’t take too well to this land grab and went after the leader. They brought him and several of his followers to this tree and hung them.
I’ve been brought to a hanging tree before, a tree from a darker part of American history. These kinds of trees have such a diametrically opposed meaning for me from how I view trees, I am at a loss on how to view or treat them. I mean, it isn’t like they went out of their way to to play this role in history; they are innocent. And, I still cannot believe what people did/do to one another. I cannot fathom it (yes, i read the news and know a bit about history).
I mean, in one sense I do understand this. I’ve been a part of some heated rivalries with those dreaded B’ville Bees; truly fierce. I’ve seen and been a part of heated discussions regarding SEC football or March Madness. I understand tribesmanship. I know how heated things get. But, to take it that far?…..
Anyhow, we were not there for long and, as you can see, the living tree is gone and it will soon return to the soil, be recycled and feed a new, more innocent generation of plants and animals (hopefully).
The next day our trip to the forest was delayed by some rig repair. Most roads in Mongolia are rough. And, to be a driver, you must also be a mechanic and have ears better than an owl. Baatar has all of that.
Not only do you have to be handy, you must be prepared:
Once repaired we headed to the southern side of the Selenge River Valley. We saw many wonderful things, but not enough fire scars. Many of our conversations went like this:
We stopped at a few homes and asked for advice. Here is the end of such a scene – watch for our local host to finish his tea. Even simply asking for advice demands a stop and cup of tea in Mongolia.
Despite these stops we found nothing…so far. Our success, a Goldmine and Field of Onions, will come a bit later. For now, I will cap this post off with scenes from the Selenge Valley and soundscapes of lands without machines.
What is it like driving around the wilds of Mongolia in a Russian jeep? Buckle up!
Did you hear that? Yup, nothing but insects.
More sounds of Mongolian wilderness
By Neil Pederson
We, Amy and me, have finally made it to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia (UB) to start the 2011 field season. It was a long journey getting here. We went through China because I have a conference to attend after fieldwork in Xi’an, China. This made the purchasing of tickets easier and would give us time to work on the plane and in transit.
China is not the preferred path to get into Mongolia. That would be South Korea. This trip underscored that point. We flew Air China, which is a fine airline. But, with no outlets for power to run our laptops and no individual TV screens, this old-skool plane would test us by taking us back in time. We got some work done, slept a bit, saw a low-resolution Asian karate/kung-fu flick and slept. Continental or Korea Air are much better.
The good thing about flying through China is that, for me, the airport is a marvel. It is huge, airy and just beautiful to stare at over Thai food while enduring jet buzz following a 12 hr trip. However, the wait ended up being much less comfortable – we pretty much spent too many hrs on the floor of the airport; there was no place to crash. China needs to rectify this! It is a lovely airport, though.
This year’s trip started in a way that last yr’s trip ended, but, in reality, how all trips to Mongolia should begin: meeting the panhandler of all panhandlers in Mongolia.
I met this man on my first trip in 1998. In fact, Brendan Buckley and I crossed paths with him about 4-5 times that summer. He didn’t speak much English and always wore a suit jacket. He puts postcards or some trinkets into your hands and pulls out a slip of paper saying that his ger has burned down, he has lost some of his family and he could use some money.
I met him on my last day in Mongolia in 2010 [pic below]. I was so happy and surprised to see him – I hadn’t seen him in a few yrs until that day. I smiled while he talked and said, “I know you! I’ve met you before. I’m happy to see you are doing well.”
He said, “You know me?”
I said, “Yes. I’ve met you several times over the years.”
With that he quickly turned and walked away. So, it was with great surprise to see him yesterday. He looked good and his English is now much better. He had on a suit jacket, a better one than 13 yrs ago, in fact. I tried to get a picture of his face, but he held up his hands in protest and said, “no pictures. But, RMB or Singaporean money I’ll take.” We laughed, put the postcards back in his hand and he left. Baatar, our host, said he has never seen him drunk or acting poorly. So, there is a good, responsible person behind this act. Obviously, if his face was exposed, he’d have no act.
Anyhow, after we left the airport and made it to downtown UB at midday, we were running on fumes. Neither of us had slept much and we were a bit delirious. We checked into our rooms in the Puma and I finally got a shower.
The water didn’t heat up much, so I woke up again. I also woke because we met up with our great Mongolian colleague, Baatarbileg Nachin.
It is always great to re-visit a long-time friend; I first met Baatar in 1998 when he was a PhD student and I was a tech. Seeing him, hearing the Mongolian language and the beautiful faces of Mongolians woke me up and postponed my nap. I took to the streets to visit old haunts and take in the city. I was excited to be in town again.
I went to the State Department Store, which was this colossal & drab Communist-era store in 1998 and now a modern, clean, bright and diverse store. I stopped at the fruit stand next to the department store to pick up some bananas; I stopped there every 2-3 days for 1.5 months last summer. I think the proprietor recognized me. She smiled warmly and broadly, which, as you ought to know, is not Mongolian. I then popped into Cafe Amsterdam for a warm drink. It is about 15-20 degrees F cooler this week compared to our trip last year. It forebodes of snow this field season.
It was a rush to see the faces and streets of Mongolia. One of the running themes on this blog is how Mongolians are blending the old and the new. While the rate of construction likely hasn’t slowed much, downtown UB appears fairly stable since 2006, there are still changes afoot. Not too many obvious things have changed. The changes in this part of the city now seems to be more of the infrastructure – sidewalks, re-facing buildings, etc. But, the most amazing thing to me is to see the amount of bananas for sale on UB’s streets. Last yr was the first year I was able to get bananas here – good, fresh bananas like back in the US. In a short walk I saw 4-5 stalls selling bananas and several Mongolians eating bananas while they walked. From a 1998 context, this is a rather jarring image.
Yet at the same time, not all that much has changed. Apparently there is a bumper crop of Siberian pine cones this yr. Siberian pine produce pine nuts like those you find in fine US markets. However, pine nuts in Mongolia are not a food one would only consider from upscale markets – it is a regular food. They are not produced regularly every year. But, during bumper-crop years, they are everywhere. I started noticing the bracts on the sidewalk and saw a young boy run by with a Siberian pine cone in his hand. The cones are beautiful (we’ll post a pic soon). An upscale Mongolian woman was nibbling pine nuts in Cafe Amsterdam with her latte. And, here we are again – an afternoon snack of millennial-old and modern-day foods in downtown UB.
Lastly, the people on the flight in were interesting and not completely ‘typical’ for most flights I’ve taken over the last decade into Mongolia. There were Mongolians and tourists. But, there were many men that seemed to be into security or something similar. We happened to sit next to a western man supervising mines in western Mongolia. It was an enlightening, though sadly enlightening conversation. Mongolia is being over-run by mining interests. Perhaps nothing can represent this better than what we saw on the streets of UB last night: an H2 Hummer with Kentucky license plates:
The Gold Rush is On!
A blog on “All Things Mongolian!
By Neil Pederson
Another late-summer, another trip to Mongolia.
We are less than two weeks from our last expedition as a part of our current research project: Climate, Fire & Forest Ecology in Mongolia. Mongolia, as it always does, starts creeping into the back of my mind and emerging from my bones this time of year. A few weeks ago I woke and craved a hotdog for breakfast, which, as you can imagine, is an unusual thing for a typical American breakfast. However, when a Mongolian colleague stayed at my house for 3 months many years ago, he ate some kind of sausage every day for breakfast. As I look towards my 7th trip to Mongolia, I get it. I understand this diet. It is still surprising, though, how this happened. How this craving came from nowhere as we moved into summer.
Despite this forewarning, Mongolia is almost on our “10-day clock‘ and I am a bit shocked. The trip seems to be arriving at light speed. With another heat wave spreading being forecast across the US, the forecast of cooler temperatures in Mongolia, however, are extremely appealing.
A recurring theme on this blog is the pace at which things are changing in Mongolia, culturally and ecologically. We have begun diving into meteorological records over the past year as a part of our data analysis. We have heard from colleagues and the people we meet in the shops and cafes of Mongolia about the severe drought in Mongolia over the last decade. But, only upon finally seeing the meteorological data of the 2000s can we comprehend the magnitude of what we have been told and what the trees are saying: It is getting dry!
You can see the “long-term” trend in the streamflow of the Kherlen Gol at Undurkhaan. The step-change in moisture since the late-1990s is what has artists, resource managers and environmentalists talking. A larger regional investigation by Jinbao Li confirms this pattern across eastern China and Mongolia.
However, this is why we do tree-ring research. Yes, there is a trend in declining moisture availability since the 1950s, but that is only 50 years. Research by students in Amy Hessl’s lab at West Virginia University, specifically Tom Saladyga and Caroline Leland, as well as research by Nicole Davi and myself at the Tree Ring Lab of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, indicate that the 1900s might have been fairly wet versus much of the prior 250 years. In fact, the late-1900s might have been the peak of this pluvial. If so, that is a nasty set up for a significantly-dry, decade-long drought. That puts a slightly different perspective on these changes [that requires more analysis in the coming year].
Regardless, a reduction in precipitation in the east, combined with greater demand for large-scale mining, wood products and the recovery of agriculture in Mongolia, ratchets up the environmental and societal pressures within the nation.
So, it is with good news that I learned this morning that CNN will be reporting on modern Mongolia. The world’s fascination with the great Mongol Empire ought to bring in more viewers. That is my hope.
Mongolia was left a bit unprepared for independence. They are quickly recovering and reclaiming what was lost during the 20th century. The discovery of so many precious minerals and resources below the Mongolian steppe is causing a rapid transformation in culture and the ecology of the land that requires world attention. Yes, Mongolians are fiercely independent and strong. But, the pressures for resource extraction are so great that it would be fantastic if news of what is happening in Mongolia brings assistance to the preservation of the mesmerizing Mongolian landscape and culture.
Recent research has discovered a major settlement of the Uigher empire dating to the 8th and 9th century in the Orkhon Valley [full text of link password protected].