Every year as the sun warms and the days lengthen, 28-year-old Baganatsooj moves his herds to their summer pastures outside the town of Tunkhel in Mongolia’s far northern Selenge province—a nomadic lifestyle his ancestors have practiced for thousands of years.
The snow has melted, and Baganatsooj’s 300 sheep and goats, 40 cows, and 30 horses graze in the wide green valley. He heard through word of mouth that the rains have been good here, so, along with his wife Munkherdene and two children, travelled 50 kilometres with their livestock to their new home.
But it’s not just the weather that determines where the herder and his family set up their ger, or traditional yurt.
They also follow the forest. “Forests generate more water, and the grass is good there, so the animals graze at the edge of the forest,” Baganatsooj says. The trees also provide scraps of fuelwood and timber for temporary fences.
Life is changing for traditional herders—who make up a third of Mongolia’s total population—and for everyone else, too. In 1990, the country transitioned from socialism to a market economy, the new freedoms leading to a quadrupling in the number of livestock. Urbanization is also increasing—the population of the capital Ulaanbaatar has grown by 70 per cent since the 1990s.
More importantly for the herders, the weather is becoming less predictable. Baganatsooj has noticed changes even within his working life: “Ten years ago the grass was very good. Now it’s getting drier. Last year was the driest year in a long time and there was lots of fire.”
Average annual temperatures in Mongolia warmed 2.1 degrees Celsius between 1940 and 2014—around triple the global increase over the same period—and Mongolian tree-ring records indicate that the 20th century was one of the warmest centuries of the last 1,200 years.
Herd animals have been devastated by repeated dzuds, a local term for a peculiarly Mongolian natural disaster—a dry summer followed by a harsh winter. Drought affects grass growth, and less grass means livestock are unable to put on enough weight to survive the winter cold. The phenomenon used to occur around once a decade, but there have been at least seven dzuds since 1998. In the worst, in 2009-2010, nearly 10 million animals died.
Climatic changes are driving further migration, says Oyunsanaa Byambasuren, the General Director of the Department of Forest Policy and Coordination at the Mongolian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET).
Oyunsanaa and colleagues used tree-ring data to analyze the frequency of droughts over the past two millennia, and found that the recent dry spell is abnormal.
“We haven’t seen anything like it in the last 2,000 years—we did not have such a frequency of droughts. It is making people lose their livestock or their livelihoods, and they’re moving to the city or more central places in order to seek a better life – and once they move, they don’t go back. It’s scary, really. The forests and pastures are under pressure.”
“People who are 40 or 50 years old say, ‘when I was a child, the situation was very different.’ Now, it’s completely unpredictable. Climate change is happening right now.”
Mongolia is known for its steppes and deserts, but it is a forest nation, too.
They are part of a huge expanse of boreal forest—the world’s largest terrestrial biome—that stretches right across the earth’s northern latitudes. These forests are both intensely affected by climate change—recent studies have found that the hotter, drier summers inhibit tree growth in Mongolia’s forests—but they are also a possible, partial solution to it.
Wolves, bears, lynx, elk, deer and boars thrive here. Hawks, falcons and owls hunt from the skies, while pelicans, hooded cranes and numerous other birds spend part of the year in the nearby lakes.
The forests store large amounts of carbon and methane in both the plants and soils, and can help to increase water availability. They also prevent erosion on steep mountainsides and are a natural barrier against the encroaching desert. They are also a source of fuelwood, timber, nuts, berries and honey, and contribute to the livelihoods of rural people in diverse ways.
As temperatures climb, Mongolia’s permafrost is shrinking, too. Permafrost is ground, rock or soil that remains frozen for more than two years in a row. In Mongolia, it’s found across the country’s north, over much the same area as the forests.
That’s no coincidence—in arid regions, permafrost can increase the amount of moisture available in the ecosystem, says Yamkhin Jambaljav from the Institute of Geography-Geoecology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
To measure the extent of Mongolia’s permafrost, Jambaljav and his team covered 24,000 kilometres over several years, as they criss-crossed the country. They drilled 120 holes of up to 15 metres into the frozen ground to measure the temperatures beneath.
They found that five per cent of Mongolia’s permafrost—13,150 square kilometres—had thawed completely between 1971 and 2015. In 1971, temperatures were low enough to support some form of permafrost in 63 per cent of the country. By 2015, that had fallen to just 29.3 per cent.
The thaw is caused by climate change—but also amplifies it. Plants and animals have been living and dying in the boreal region for thousands of years. Where the ground is frozen, it prevents their remains from decaying, storing the carbon in the soil and keeping it out of the atmosphere. But if the soil thaws, microbes decompose the ancient carbon and release methane and carbon dioxide.
It’s estimated that the Northern Hemisphere’s frozen soils and peatlands hold about 1,700 billion tonnes of carbon—four times more than humans have emitted since the industrial revolution, and twice as much as is currently in the atmosphere.
In 2011, scientists from the Permafrost Carbon Network estimated that if they thaw, that would release around the same quantity of carbon as global deforestation does—but because permafrost emissions also include significant amounts of methane, the overall effect on the climate could be 2.5 times larger.
So what can be done? According to Werner Kurz, an ecologist at Canada’s Pacific Forestry Centre in British Columbia and a contributing researcher to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), two things have to happen at the same time if we’re to avoid runaway climate change, and meet the goals of the 2015 UN Paris Agreement.
“We cannot do that without simultaneously massive reductions in fossil fuel consumption and managing the land in such a way to contribute the greatest possible sink—so that it keeps sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere but also provides a continuous supply of timber, fiber and energy to meet society’s demands.”
That means preventing forests from becoming farmland or desert, fighting the fires and insects, and encouraging local people’s involvement in protecting their forests.
Mongolia has taken up the challenge. Alongside other efforts by the national government, the country is also the first outside the tropics to begin preparing for REDD+, an international climate change mitigation scheme under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that aims to assist developing countries to protect their forests and the carbon stores within them.
Although Mongolia’s UN-REDD National Programme will come to a close this year, the country’s REDD+ implementation will forge ahead. “National ownership of this programme is important,” says Zamba Batjargal, Mongolia’s National Focal Point for the UNFCCC at the Ministry for Environment and Tourism. “I believe that the UN-REDD Programme will leave a good legacy and continue without any outside support. We have made big strides for our forests and we will continue forward.”
To commemorate the success of Mongolia’s National REDD+ Programme thus far, the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC) has prepared a special multimedia story, from which the above text was drawn. Read the full-length article here.
Additionally, the UN-REDD Programme has produced a feature story on how Mongolia’s boreal forests can better the livelihoods of its rural people.