Hundreds of years ago Ghengis Khan led a thundering horde of Mongolian horsemen across Asia and into Europe, conquering nearly everything in his path in a quest for world domination.
A traditional Mongolian nomadic camp. Image by Lady Anu
Now the ancestors of those fierce warriors are staging a new invasion, with thousands of formerly nomadic herdsmen settling in the cities as global warming's effects make their traditional lifestyles much more difficult.
Ulaanbataar, Mongolia’s capital and largest city, has doubled its population over the last two decades. Much of this has been due to the thousands of traditional herdsmen who now crowd into makeshift townships on the edge of the city, living in their traditional felt tents while trying to make a living in an urban world.
Several experts have laid the blame on global warming, which has hit the country harder than most. The country’s grasslands have dried up as the temperature has risen over the last few decades. The temperature in Mongolia has risen by almost 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 60 years. Without the sweeping expanses of grass the Mongolian steppes are famous for, the livestock herdsmen’s traditional way of life has been made much more difficult.
Not that their lifestyle was ever particularly easy. Mongolia has an immensely harsh climate to begin with. The country pairs bitterly cold winters with boiling hot summers. However, experts on Mongolia say the situation has been getting worse in the past decade or so. Clyde Goulden works at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, where he is the director of the Institute for Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecological Studies. Goulden said that warming trends seem to have gotten faster in the past decade. These rises in temperatures have actually made native plants, which livestock rely on for food, grow much slower.
The effect on plant growth is mostly due to a loss of moisture in the soil, due to rains that are heavy but infrequent. Goulden estimated 15-20% of soil moisture in Mongolia is lost because of global warming effects. He said: "When you have these heavier rains, you get greater runoff, with less of the moisture being soaked up by the soil for the summer growth”
Not only does the moisture loss stunt summer growth but the warmer winter temperatures actually lead to more ice on the ground, keeping livestock from reaching the plants that survived. Goulden said: "They'll get a moderate amount of snow, but then there's a warm day and the snow melts, then a cold day again and it freezes. This builds up two inches of ice, and the livestock can't get to the food. When that occurs for a month or two, you have a large number of animals dying of starvation.”
Global warming may also be responsible for more frequent and severe occurrences of the legendary Mongolian weather feature known as the dzud, a winter storm that can bring the country to its knees and kill most livestock. One herdsman described losing 90% of his animals in a 1999 dzud. The event, and others like it, wiped out many herdsmen in the country, who then moved to the cities to try and support themselves.
Info from National Geographic