_Mongolian Perspective

For the nomadic herders of Mongolia, there is no question as to whether global warming is occurring. They know it is—and see the impacts every single day.

_Clyde Goulden

As director of the Asia Center and the Institute for Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecological Studies at the Academy, Goulden has been studying climate change in Mongolia for two decades.

Clyde Goulden, director of the Asia Center at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, has spent two decades traveling to the mountains of northern Mongolia in search of one thing in particular: climate change.

He’s seen significant changes resulting from data collected through long-term environmental surveys and monitoring.

But another kind of survey, which began in 2009, has shed a different light on the changes. Goulden has interviewed firsthand the Mongolian nomadic herders who survive off the land.

“The changes they are seeing are substantial. They’re very concerned, and most herders are very pessimistic about the future.”
—Clyde Goulden, director of the Asia Center at the Academy

The survey in Mongolia began for Goulden and his colleagues in 1994. At that time, the country was a particularly interesting study site with its huge land mass, very small human population and fairly strict political conditions that prevented a lot of human interference. In the 1990s, it was one of the few places in the world that had study sites that were almost completely pristine. Since the fall of communism, the economical and political changes have allowed greater impacts on the environment. Goulden’s arrival in the ’90s couldn’t have come at a better time.

It was then that Goulden witnessed near-perfection in the form of a pristine and ancient lake in the northernmost extension of Mongolia. Roughly 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, Lake Hovsgol is one of the purest freshwater bodies in the world.

“I was very anxious to visit,” Goulden recalls. “I wanted to learn more about the lake from what had been studied previously by the Russians and Mongolians. Not much had been published in English, so I wanted to learn what was there and the potential for future study.”

Over the next 18 years, Goulden and his colleagues traveled to Mongolia once (sometimes twice) a year on grant-funded assignments for studies in biodiversity assessment, environmental monitoring, land-use management, ecotourism development, social anthropology and capacity building for young scientists.

From 2002 until 2006, Goulden served as the international consultant for a Global Environment Fund/World Bank-funded, capacity-building project to train young Mongolian researchers in environmental studies, including meteorology, biogeochemistry and ecology of major plant and animal populations.

The young scientists documented changes in the climate and how it was affecting the plants and animals and set the stage for further research on climate change.

In 2009, with funding from the National Science Foundation and Partnerships for International Research and Education, Goulden shifted his focus to another element of Lake Hovsgol—the nomads who live around it and depend on it to survive. Mongolia has slightly more than two million people living in 604,000 square miles, one of the lowest population densities in the world, including one of the last remaining horse-based nomadic cultures.

For the past four years, Goulden, together with his wife, Tuya, have been interviewing the nomads to get their perspective on how their environment is changing. The environmental changes recorded by Goulden every year are affecting the herders on a daily basis, he says.

“The changes they are seeing are substantial. They’re very concerned, and most herders are very pessimistic about the future,” Goulden explains.

Of the 130 families the Gouldens interviewed, 98 percent reported noticing that the formerly gradual, silky, calm rains had become intense, short-lived downpours that fail to moisten the ground. The herders also say there has been an increase in the severity of rain storms, and many plant species are less abundant due to drier soils. Less plant biomass means less nourishment for the animals, which provide the meat and dairy products for all Mongolians. Other scientific data shows a temperature increase of almost four degrees Fahrenheit over the last 70 years resulting in weather changes and the thaw of permafrost which means the plants are working harder for deep-rooted water.

As a result, some herders are selling their animals, moving away from the countryside into urban areas, and leaving behind the lifestyle of their ancestors. Others say they have always been herders and, despite these difficulties, will continue their present way of life. But they must learn how to adapt to the recent environmental changes, including moving their herds more often to new pastures. The major “cash-crop” for Mongolian herders has been cashmere goats, but goats can do great damage to pastures.

After years of conducting interviews and collecting data, Goulden says it’s time to publish.

“Now we have to take what the herders say and contrast that with the (scientific) data,” says Goulden. “We’ll definitely publish one paper on the changes in the rain patterns and then another larger paper that will summarize the way the herders responded, including how they’re going to adapt to these changes.”