Annika Ericksen

Annika Ericksen is a cultural and environmental anthropologist at Gustavus. Annika works in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Here is what she has to say about how climate change is affecting that region:

I am worried about how climate is changing in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, as are local nomadic herders. The direction and pace of change are unclear, but the seasons have become unpredictable, threatening herders’ livelihood security.

When I first carried out ethnographic research in the region in 2010-2011, nomadic herders and anyone else with an interest in climate and environment knew that things were changing. They said things like, “There is no longer a summer season.” Winter shifted into spring and spring was never ending. Spring is the worst season in Mongolia. It means hunger, wind, and dust storms. Herders wait for the summer rains and new green growth on the desert rangeland so that their winter-worn livestock can fatten up again, and so that the new offspring—especially little kid goats and lambs (camels are hardier)—might survive. A long spring means death.

If and when summer comes, it brings rain, and herders move their herds and their homes to places where they can find fresh pasture growth. However, often these places are too scarce, and that means that there is crowding and competition. Sometimes a whole multi-province region is in drought, so there is nowhere to go. If the rains don’t fall in the summer, animals won’t fatten up enough to get through the coming winter.

Herders in 2010-2011 told me about increasingly sporadic summer rainfall and what they saw as resulting ecological impacts, such as the disappearance of a number of desirable forage plants. (Others argue that increasing herd sizes since the end of socialism in Mongolia are the main factor in the scarcity of desirable plant species.)

Herders also told me that zud events—severe winter disasters—had increased in frequency over the past decades. Zud refers to any winter disaster in which many livestock die, and it can have many causes—summer drought reducing forage available for winter grazing, too much snow in winter, too much hard ice over the pasture, or even just extreme cold. (Of course, there are political and economic factors that contribute to any disaster, as well, but I won’t get started on those!) Because of the varied specific causes of zud disasters, it is hard to correlate increasing zud to changing climate, yet it would be equally hard to deny any connection.

To complement what I learned from the observations of herders that I lived with and interviewed during my research in 2010-2011, I looked to the 2007 IPCC report on climate change, “AR4,” an impressive consolidation of climate modeling and analysis for all world regions. Even though the certainty of modeling was low for the Gobi region, I saw that by the 2080s it could see considerable warming, particularly in winter, and increased precipitation, also concentrated in the winter (as snow). These forecasts were troubling. Increased snowfall could be especially problematic, making it harder for animals to graze. As for summer, models were unclear on whether rains would increase or decline. However, all experts were saying that precipitation would probably become less regular, i.e. there would likely be periods of drought with intermittent torrential rainfall events, whereas regular and gentle summer rains are best for good pasture growth. Another worry is that warming of already hot summers could hurt vegetation and animals.

These days, weird weather in Mongolia parallels weird weather here in Minnesota and elsewhere around the world. When I started looking at climate change in combination with other threats to traditional pastoral livelihoods in Mongolia back in 2010, I would tell people back home in the US, “Guess what—it’s already happening in Mongolia. People are feeling it.” Now, there is nothing novel about this statement, but climate change will continue to be an undeniable factor in any research that I do in Mongolia or elsewhere.