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.