Category Archives: research results

Armin Van Buuren, Ancient Wood, and Ghengis Khan: This is not your father’s field research in Mongolia

We never expected this. Enkhbat had us hovering at warp speed along the Millennium Road in the northern shadows of the Khangai Mountains. Armin Van Buuren’s A State of Trance filling our rig. We were starting a new project to study the interaction between climate, fire, and forest history in the land of Chinggis Khaan and a silky voice was lifting us higher, “and if you only knew, just how much the Sun needs you, to help him light the sky, you’d be surprised. Do…do…do.do”. We were exhilarated. The Sun was shining. This was not exactly Chinggis’ steppe. But little did we know, we would eventually be chasing his ghost.

 

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Byarbaatar & Amy in front of Khorgo, unknowingly about to meet Chinggis’s ghost. Photo credit: Enkhbat.

After about a day’s travel we started passing the Khorgo lava field. Amy asked, “What’s that?” Neil had forgotten about this landmark despite having walked upon it 10 years prior. It is a ~30 km2 lava field with old trees on it. Gordon Jacoby, Nicole Davi, Baatarbileg Nachin, and others had sampled in the early aughts and put together a ca 700 yr long drought record from Siberian larch. Neil relayed this information to Amy and she said that we should sample on it knowing that a 2,000 yr long record in the American Southwest had been produced on a similar landscape feature. We had a tight schedule, but as we drove out to the western edge of the Khangai’s, sampled sites, witnessed a sheep in the dying throes of a brain worm infection, got snowed on, and then sweated in much warmer temperatures, we decided it was worth the time to see what was out there. Little did we know.

By the time we arrived to start sampling, Neil was getting sick (we learned days later that Neil was coming down with tonsillitis) and we were on fumes from some bone-challenging swings in the weather. Amy pushed on during the first day with Byarbaatar and Balginnyam. The found a pile of dead horse bones and couldn’t get the chainsaw running stopping them from acquiring samples from downed, dead trees. It felt almost hopeless.

We summoned our strength the next day and explored a new section of the lava field. Soon after getting out there we starting seeing Siberian pine, a tree Neil hadn’t seen on his first visit and hadn’t been sampled previously at this site. We decided that after our fire history collection we would sample some pine trees just to see what They might have to say.

 

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The Logo Tree: The Siberian pine that clued us into the possibility that there might be something extraordinary on the Khorgo lava field. Photo credit: Amy Hessl

As this collection wasn’t priority, these samples sat until late January of the following year. Here is the first email of the discovery (partially redacted for some sensitive language).

 

The sample “locked in and said the inner ring i measured was 1235…whoa! that was cool b/c i started a good bit from the pith…. i race back to me scope and measuring stage…..make mistakes. going too fast. fix the mistakes…..the PITH is 1142!!!!

 

yes, i can see the yr Chinggis was born. i can see the yr he died. i can see the yrs Mongolia rose to rule Asia!

 

this has been our Holy Chinggis during the entire Mongolian project.

 

this is totally hot censored.

 

neil

 

ps – i guess we are going back to Khorgo, huh?”

 

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KLP0010a – the first sample of Siberian pine from the 2010 Khorgo lava collection to break the 1200s. The pith is 1142 CE (Common Era). Photo credit: Neil Pederson

We secured funding and we went back to Khorgo in 2012 with a bigger crew and one goal in mind – collect more wood.

We cannot believe what we have found.

For centuries, common wisdom held that the Mongols were driven to conquest because of harsh conditions – drought. Our new record, dating back with confidence to 900 CE (Common Era), indicates the opposite. After the unification of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan, you know him as Ghengis Khan, led his army from Northern China in 1211 to the Caspian Sea in 1224 CE. Our new record in PNAS indicates that it was consistently wet from 1211-1225, a period we are calling the Mongol Pluvial (look for an open access version of this paper here or contact Amy or me). No years during this period were below the long-term average, which is a singular rare run of moisture conditions in our 1,100 year long record. Independent tree-ring records over extra tropical Asia also indicate that this period was warm.

On the cool semi-arid steppe of Central Asia, water is life and in those days, water was energy. The Mongol diet is heavily based on the meat of grazers. Their mode of transportation was the short, but Pheidippidic horse. So, for food and for travel, grass is life. Grass is energy. An abundance of moisture would seem to provide the horsepower for the rapidly growing Mongol Empire. The Mongol soldier had five steed at their disposal. With a large army, that quickly translates into a huge herd and a huge need for grass.

Our tree-ring record suggests that the grasslands of central Mongolia were likely productive. They strongly agree with satellite estimates of grassland productivity. Going back in time, then, the trees would suggest the Mongol Empire during its rapid expansion was sitting in a sea of grass, a sea of energy, a potential abundance of life.

That is our hypothesis, anyhow, and something we will test in the coming years with historical documents, environmental records from lake sediments, more tree rings, and ecological modeling experiments.

While this record speaks to a rapid transformation of Eurasian culture during the 13th century, it also speaks about an abrupt transformation in Mongol culture today. Towards the end of our tree-ring record we see a prolonged drought from the end of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st century. This drought followed the wettest century of the last 11 and occurred during the warmest period of the last 1,100 years in Asia. The abrupt transition in the environmental conditions, a transition that saw hundreds of lakes and wetlands disappear from the landscape, occurs during the transition from a more agriculturally-based economy to a more urban-based economy. These severe conditions, in combination with some harsh winters, killed millions of livestock and are thought to be one trigger of a mass migration of Mongols from the countryside into the capital of Ulaanbaatar.

 

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Ulaanbaatar in 2006. The homes on the far hills likely reflect climatic and economic refugees moving from the countryside into the city. Photo credit: N. Pederson

Though we cannot connect this heat drought to climate change (though maybe we kind of can), warming temperatures have stacked the deck towards higher evaporative demand, so even if the amount of precipitation remains the same, high temperatures will generate a more intense drought.  That’s what we observed in the early 21st century and based on past moisture variation in Mongolia and future predictions of warming, we would expect to see similar events in the future.

From Armin Van Buuren to Chinggis Khaan to Armin Van Buuren again. We had no clue of how Summer 2010 would light the sky.*

 

_____________

 

* this post was requested by a media outlet so they could have the ‘author’s voice’ on this discovery. That version was ultimately sanitized for your protection. Here it is unadultered.

 

 

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A Dream Becomes Reality

It has been a while since we last updated this blog. The reasons are many. The primary reason for the delay is that we have had singular focus in launching our next project, a project that for many is a dream come true.

Before we launch into that and officially start the 2013 field season, let’s do a quick recap of our team’s efforts since last August.

Our academic year started with a bang: our new research project, which was an unexpected off shoot of our efforts to study climate, fire, and forest ecology, was funded by the National Science Foundation in September 2012.

Since then, our team has spent much time presenting prior results, new preliminary results and processing samples. Many, many samples.

Acres and acres of treats: xylemite that might as well be gold. Photo: N. Pederson

Acres and acres of treats: xylemite that might as well be gold. Photo: N. Pederson

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Transitions: Climate, Fire, and Forests in Mongolia

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.

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More Rain & More Horses Leads to a Stronger Chinggis? It is a thought!

Bayrbaatar & Amy the day before our fateful discovery

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.

an ancient Siberian pine

Sawdust and Mosquito Wings

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.

birch forest

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.

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Got Milk Tea? Musings on a Master’s Thesis

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.

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