Why Mongolia? Why not Colorado for climate change research?

From a distance, the wide, u-shaped river valley that runs east to west into Lake Hovsgol looks like any of the half dozen or so valleys along the eastern shore of the lake.  But the Dalbai valley has one unusual feature.  Here, a small population of western scientists and students are working with their Mongolian colleagues to better understand the complex vegetative systems that make up Central Asia’s extensive steppe grassland. 

Running up the pale green hillside -- in an area officially designated a long term ecological research (LTER) site in 1997 on the recommendation of Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences and the Mongolian Academy of Sciences -- are a series of fenced grids. There, protected from the encroachment of grazing yaks and horses, experiments are being conducted by up to 30 American, French, English, and Mongolian students.  The effort is part of a study jointly sponsored by the National University of Mongolia and the University of Pennsylvania.

Over dinner in Ulaan Bataar a few nights ago, I asked Peter Petraitis, a Penn biology professor and the principle investigator on this project, why Mongolia is the place he chose to pursue his research.  Why not Wyoming, Montana, or Colorado? 

“Mongolia offers an intact ecosystem where grasses, animals, and people have been together for millennia,” he replied.

“Unlike the American West, where most of the grasses are introduced and cattle have been a factor for little more than a century, Mongolia’s herding traditions have been part of the natural balance from before the time of written history.”

With help from the Academy's Clyde Goulden, whose Mongolian research began in the early 1990s, Petraitis and his academic colleagues at Penn approached the National Science Foundation to ask for support from the Partnership for International Research and Education (PIRE). 

The $2.5 million they received in 2007 has enabled the Penn-Academy team to work with Mongolia’s National University scientists to unravel the complex interrelationships between plants, people, and climate change that lie at the base of Mongolia’s unique steppe ecosystem, while helping to train a new generation of American and Mongolian scientists.  In all, some twenty three American undergraduates, 32 Mongolian undergrads, and a half dozen graduate students from both countries have been involved with the five year project.

The research base on the southern slope of the Dalbai valley, with its seven white gers and scattering of tents, has itself become the subject of a study.  In a field of wildflowers,  surrounded by hundreds of red, yellow, blue marker flags, Nomin-erdene and Ankhtsetseg, undergraduates from the National University of Mongolia, are counting plant species as part of a long term study of plant succession. 

“Nomadic families put their gers in a certain place for a certain period of time,” explains Nomin-erdene.  “By the time they move to their next grazing area, the place where their ger was set has lost its vegetation.  We have done the same thing here each summer since 2008.  We are looking at how quickly different species of plants return to an area where they have been killed.” 

The datable sites of the research team’s gers provides an ideal study, not easily replicated at the undocumented ger sites of Mongolia’s nomads.  When matched with other studies on grazing, rainfall, and changing temperature,  the ger site study will give the ecologists working here an accurate profile of vegetative succession.

With passive warming devices  to artificially increase temperatures, and other structures designed to reduce rainfall on the experimental plots that dot the hillside, the researchers are creating conditions that may become the normal  here in future years. 

“We are manipulating our study sites to see what will happen to the vegetation if the temperatures go up by 1.5 degrees centigrade or if the precipitation levels should change, ” says Laura Spence, a post-doctoral researcher from Penn.  “Our exclosures can also determine which vegetative changes are being caused by larger climate shifts and which are caused by local human activity such as over-grazing from increased herd sizes.”

The results of the studies, which will presented at  conferences and in scientific publications in the years to come, will provide new data for ecological theorists. More practically, it will help the people here learn what to expect and how to plan for it. 

“There is little the herders can do to stop global climate change,” observes Goulden, who with Petraitis is a co-investigator in the NSF-PIRE study.  “But we can help them respond to those changes by better understanding them.” 

In 2008, Goulden and his colleagues published 10,000 copies of a Mongolian “Herders Handbook” to distribute in the Hovsgol area.  In it they explained the signs to look for to indicate when an area was becoming overgrazed so that herders could move their herds before permanently damaging the ecosystem and compromising their future living pattern.

“With the data we are getting from the studies here at Dalbai, we will have a lot more to say in the next edition of the handbook,” says Goulden.  

The work of students and scientists on this isolated river valley in northern Mongolia may one day help not only the herders of Central Asia, but possibly also those in Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado as well.