ALTANBULAG, Mongolia — It was another harsh winter on the central Mongolian steppe, with temperatures dropping to nearly 50 below zero Fahrenheit and thick snow covering the rolling grasslands. More than a million cattle, sheep and goats, already weakened by a dry summer, died, while nomads’ precious horses froze to death on their feet.
“It was very hard, and the snow was deep,” said 38-year-old herder Nyamdorj Tumursanaa, drinking milky tea in the nomads’ traditional circular tentlike home known as a ger. “Even if the animals dug through the snow, there was no grass underneath. We had to buy grass for them, but still many of our animals died.”
Here on the central Asian steppe, the ancient home of Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde, the nomads are brought up tough. Yet their ancient lifestyle is under threat as never before. Global climate change combined with local environment mismanagement, government neglect and the lure of the modern world has created a toxic cocktail.
Every year, thousands more herders abandon their way of life and head for Mongolia’s crowded capital, Ulaanbaatar, which already holds half the nation’s population.
The nomadic culture is the essence of what it is to be a Mongolian, but this is a country in dramatic and sudden transition: from a Soviet-style one-party state and command economy to a chaotic democracy and free market economy, and from an entirely nomadic culture to a modern, urban lifestyle.
Climate change is a major culprit, and Mongolia, landlocked and far from the moderating effects of the ocean, is suffering more than most parts of the world.
At the best of times, this is a fragile climate, with little rainfall and huge variations in temperature, which is why this vast territory supports a population of only 3 million people, making it the world’s most sparsely populated country.
Now, government figures show average temperatures have risen by about 2.2 degrees Celsius (4.0 degrees Fahrenheit) since systematic records began in 1940 — well above the global average rise of about 0.85 degrees Celsius (1.53 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880.
Summers, when most of the rainfall occurs, have become drier, and “extreme climate events” have become more frequent, says Purevjav Gomboluudev, head of climate research at Mongolia’s Information and Research Institute of Meteorology, Hydrology and Environment.
The most dangerous event of all is a dry summer followed by severe winter, a phenomenon known as “dzud.” Drought leaves livestock weak and reserves of grass low, making cold weather more dangerous: extreme cases in 1999-2001 and 2009-2010 wiped out a combined 20 million animals.