Environment

Mongolia's Warmer Climate Uproots Societal Traditions

Desertification is driving shepherds to abandon their trade and move to crowded cities.

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Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

In the past 75 years, Mongolia’s temperature has increased more than 2 degrees Celsius, more than twice the global average, and its weather has changed in curious and counterintuitive ways.

The country is like a petri dish in which we can see the complex interplay of social, environmental and economic challenges the rest of the world will be dealing with in the coming decades.

Read the full story of "Climate and the Khan" »

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

The white ger is a traditional wood and felt tent of nomadic Mongolians. Shepherds are increasingly moving their gers to an ever-larger slum on Ulaanbaatar’s outskirts.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

As Mongolia's resources are exploited without long-term environmental planning, people, individually and as a society, have no choice but to adapt.

Read the full story of "Climate and the Khan" »

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

Research by Amy Hessl, pictured, and others has revealed Genghis Khan, great leader of the nascent Mongol Empire, was helped by a fortuitous climate. His conquest in the 13th century coincided with the most consistently wet — and likely resource rich — period in Mongolia in more than a thousand years.

Now Hessl and her colleagues are probing tree rings to reconstruct that past climate and confirm their hypothesis.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

Location is the key to using trees to determine an annual record of soil moisture.

Where the limiting resource for growth is moisture, the drier years will produce exceedingly narrow growth rings — less than a tenth of the thickness of a sheet of paper — and the wetter years will produce fatter ones.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

Dendrochronologists can construct thousand-year histories using trees that, individually, may have lived only a fraction of that time. Still, Hessl and her colleagues are searching for the oldest possible specimens.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

There are parallels between the 13th century and the 20th for Mongolia.

During the 20th century the country also warmed and got wetter. Livestock capacity exploded, and herding shifted from traditional yaks and sheep to more voracious goats, valued for their cashmere.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

But since 1999 the country has experienced drought and soil degradation, leading some to worry that the late 20th century climate might have been an anomaly. That could spell an unsustainable future for the country.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

Dolgorsuren Chimeddulam lives on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. She lost all of her livestock in the dzud, a term Mongolians use to refer to extreme storms, but also to an increasingly volatile environment of drought and desertification.

Researchers believe Mongolia’s situation may only get worse as the country’s temperatures continue to rise.

Photo Credits: Russ Juskalian

Only about 45 minutes outside Ulaanbaatar, herders sell livestock in ad hoc pens on the side of the road. Sheep have grazed the Mongolian steppe for centuries, but as more land becomes degraded, shepherds are forced to abandon their traditions and move to the city.

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