Holding Back the Gobi

Park (left) and Tsogtbaatar by their windbreak in Dalanzadgad. Image by Dan Grossman. Mongolia, 2011.

Few places in the world are feeling the effects of global warming as powerfully as Mongolia, the almond shaped country located between northern China and Siberia. Mongolia’s average temperature has gone up by 2.1 degrees Celsius in the last 70 years, about three times the global average. The added warmth is drying the land and the country’s lakes and rivers. Studies of precipitation suggest that rain is falling more frequently in intense bursts rather than in gentle sprays.

Researchers say these changes are harmful to Mongolia’s grasslands, which feed the livestock that directly support nearly half of its population of 3 million. I’ve come to Mongolia to see the impacts of global warming on the country’s range land and the people who live off it. I’m also learning how people here are trying to adapt to the new conditions.

Mongolia’s southernmost province, South Gobi, has a climate as inhospitable as almost anywhere on Earth. Still, tens of thousands of nomadic herders here tend small flocks of camels, goats, sheep, horses and cows. The people roam nomadically across South Gobi’s undulating range, sometimes moving locations, in search of the best grasses, more than a dozen times a year. Commonly called the Gobi Desert, the region is technically a mixture of desert and semi-desert. In places vegetation-free dunes rise above the plains in golden mounds smooth as skin or gently rippled and shaped like reclining nudes. Elsewhere grasses, shrubs and some small trees cover broad plains. Researchers who have studied Mongolia’s pastures say that South Gobi’s vegetation is becoming more sparse and growing less vigorously. Erdenechuluum Zorigt, the Ecology and Environmental Policy Advisor to Mongolia’s president, says in the future people in South Gobi might have to give up herding entirely, or move to wetter regions in the country’s north.

I traveled to South Gobi with two foresters: Tsogtbaatar, a member of Mongolia’s Academy of Sciences, and Park, the former head the Korean organization Northeast Asian Forest Forum. (Both Tsogtbaatar and Park, following custom in their counties, go only by given names.) The two foresters might be called tree huggers, but in South Gobi trees are too bushy and spiny to clasp without injury. Eight years ago, with help from South Gobi locals, Tsogtbaatar and Park started planting long rows of saplings. They wanted to prove to skeptical residents of the region that windbreaks of trees could hold soil in place and trap dust blowing in the wind, They wanted to prove that trees could make South Gobi more hospitable for people, their livestock and the sparse vegetation that is the foundation of herding life.

Tsogtbaatar and Park making a striking pair. Park dresses neatly all in black. He’s diminutive. Tsogtbaatar is stocky, with a paunch that hangs slightly over his belt. He laughs heartily and frequently in a ha-ha-ha staccato. Neither can speak the other’s language so they communicate in broken English, often gently poking fun at each other.

Tsogtbaatar and Park showed me several examples of what they’ve accomplished. Where I come from, New England, the woodlands they’ve created would seem pitifully stunted. But here, where, only about one tenth as much rain falls, the small forests inspire awe. Just outside the city of Dalanzadgad, the capital of South Gobi, Tsogtbaatar and Park planted a 2.5-mile-long windbreak about 200 yards wide with thousands of trees in rows. The leaves of ten foot-tall poplar trees glisten in the sun and rustle in the wind. Nearby, slower growing Siberian elm exude a spicy aroma. Tsogtbaatar says when the short-lived poplar die, in several decades, the elm will come into their own, improving the lot of residents of Dalanzadgad for many years.

The pair of foresters had not been back to see the fruits of their labor for several years. Tsogtbaatar says many people question whether an artificial forest can even be created in South Gobi. “They say Tsogtbaatar and Park are crazy,” he says. So, even though it is too early to know how well the trees halt dust or secure soil in place, the sight of their little woodlot pleases them. Park says by proving wrong the skeptics, and showing how to make a forest grow here, they’ve performed an important service. “Our work is almost done. Now it’s government’s job,” he says in slightly broken English. Whether a large-scale tree-planting program will ever take place, though, is uncertain. As Tsogtbaatar says, speaking with an accent with hints of his first foreign language, Russian, “in Mongolia, very difficult to plan ahead. Just hope for best.”