Saturday, April 25, 2015

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.

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.

About this blog
The age of exploration is not dead. Over the next six weeks, Robert Peck and colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania will be traveling in Mongolia, reconnecting with herdsmen Peck met 17 years ago and checking for evidence of climate change. Peck will chronicle his travels in the land once ruled by Genghis Khan on a blog at

Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Peck is a writer, naturalist, and historian who has traveled extensively in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He has been honored by the Academy, the Explorers Club, and other organizations for his contributions to exploration and the interpretation of natural history. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State and the White House chose him to represent the United States at Mongolia’s 800th birthday celebration. Peck is the author of Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America (1990), Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador (1987), and other books and papers.

Clyde Goulden, Director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Goulden’s research in Asia began in 1994 when he and Academy colleagues were invited to initiate studies on a large lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol. His work at the lake has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. He is associated with a research program to study the impacts of climate change on the lake’s watershed and the nomadic herders of Mongolia.

Tuya Goulden, researcher and international travel liaison
Tuya Goulden moved to the United States in 2006 from Mongolia and is a citizen of the U.S. In addition to college degrees from Mongolian universities, she has a master’s degree in tourism management from George Washington University. Goulden has been active in organizing expeditions in Mongolia for scientists in from the Academy and other universities. She is a research assistant for the Mongolian NSF-PIRE project on climate change impacts and serves as the translator for interviews with Mongolian nomadic herders.

Dakin Henderson, videographer
Henderson, a Boston filmmaker, has produced fiction and non-fiction short films, music videos and science-education documentaries. His films have won awards at Colorado College, the Shoot Out Boulder competition and the Ecological Society of America EcoFilm Festival. He currently works with the award-winning production team, Vital Pictures. Visit his website at

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