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Heat-stressed reindeer in northern Mongolia. Ice patches they use to cool down no longer stay frozen year round. Photo: S. Nansalmaa

Climate change threatens reindeer herders’ way of life in Mongolia’s north, and yields clues to their past

  • Nomadic Dukha reindeer herders, used to snow and ice staying frozen all summer in Mongolia’s remote boreal forest, have been badly affected by global warming
  • As they watch the disappearing ice threaten their animals, archaeologists retrieve artefacts the melting lays bare and seek pointers to the Dukhas’ history
In Mongolia’s far north near its border with Russia, the forest floor is soft and muddy. The taiga, or boreal forest, is so cold that humidity is trapped near the ground year-round, creating a dense fog that obscures visibility. No vehicle can cross this region; only horses and reindeer can reach this place where Mongolia’s last reindeer herders, the Dukha people, live. The nearest town, Tsagaannuur, is an eight-hour horse ride away.

Now the region is in the grip of a climate crisis; rising temperatures pose threats to the landscape, the survival of its reindeer population, and the way of life of the herdsmen who rely on the animals.

Because of its high altitude, numerous ice patches – persistent accumulations of snow and ice – used to remain year-round. But in the past decade they have begun thawing rapidly.

While climate change is bad for the Dukha people, it’s a boon for archaeologists researching their mysterious past. The disappearing ice has revealed once hidden artefacts that could shed light on the history of the region.

Reindeer on an ice patch in Mengebulag, northern Mongolia, in summer 2006 (top) and the same location in 2018, with no ice remaining. The ice melted completely for the first time in 2017, threatening the area’s reindeer and causing the loss of any archaeological material that may have once remained. Photo: S. Nansalmaa/W. Taylor

Researchers Julia Clark, director of Nomad Science Mongolia, and William Taylor, curator and assistant professor of archaeology at University of Colorado Boulder, in the United States, witnessed first hand the effects of the rapidly melting ice in the region when they carried out archaeological research in the summer of 2018.

The team of American archaeologists discovered two worked willow branch artefacts from an ice patch that had completely melted. After consulting the Dukha nomads, the team identified them as parts of an antique fishing rod.

The slanted ends of the willow branch artefacts found by archaeologists when ice melted in northern Mongolia would have been lashed together, perhaps as part of a fishing pole. Photo: W. Taylor

Clark says the ice patch she was working on disappeared in just 10 days. “There are very few ice patches left now,” she says. “The place called by local people Munkh Mus – which means Eternal Ice – is now a big field of rocks.”

The Dukha people live in tiny huts made from tarpaulins and wood, with only one or two mats and blankets and some pots and pans. They have very few possessions. Because of their minimalist lifestyle, there exists very little record of their past and how they might have lived.

The long willow rods, each 1.5cm (five-eighths of an inch) in diameter, which Taylor believes date back a half-century or more, have man-made cuts and other modifications, and connect like Lego bricks.

A tented Dukha home. They are a nomadic people. Photo: Byamba Ochir

Not only does the team hope the artefacts will provide a clue as to the lives of the Dukha people before they settled in the region, they believe they could also shed light on how fast the ice is melting. “Because organic artefacts degrade quickly once free of the preservative ice, our findings suggest that contemporary levels of ice melt exceed any during recent decades,” Clark and Taylor note in their research.

They estimate the ice patches date back at least a century. Organic material frozen in ice for at least 50 years has now started to appear from under the snow.

During their research, the archaeologists realised how valuable the once “eternal ice” is to the Dukha people. “Our findings suggest to us that ice patches have been an important aspect of Dukha life throughout the last century,” says Taylor. The harsh terrain and cold of the Mongolian taiga region has served them well, allowing them to thrive in remote areas and to maintain their culture.

A Dukha herder tends to his reindeer on a cold winter morning in the western taiga of northern Mongolia. Photo: Byamba Ochir

Mongolia’s last reindeer-herding nomads, the Dukha move from one part of the forest to another with their animals. Reindeer maintain their body heat by moving to warmer areas in the winter, and migrating to cooler zones in the summer. As the ice melts the reindeer are forced to seek out ever small ice patches to cool off.

Herders observe that the once perennial snow has been melting more quickly than it used to 10 years ago.

“Ice used to melt in September when I was young, but now it completely melts away in July,” says Sandui Ganbat, a 60-year-old Dukha from the eastern part of the Mongolian taiga.

William Taylor and Julia Clark in native dress in the eastern taiga region of northern Mongolia. Photo: S. Nansalmaa

Ochir Yadamba, 35, a Dukha reindeer herder from the western part of the taiga region, has seen how climate change is making his home inhospitable. “The ground has got drier, with very little vegetation and fewer flowers than it used to have when I was a child. And as the land gets drier, people also have less fodder for their reindeer.”

Mongolia’s average temperature increased by 2.24 degrees Celsius between 1940 and 2015 – triple the global average. Climate change has destroyed much of the country’s grazing land.

Half of the three million people living in Mongolia are nomadic herders – raising cattle, sheep, goats, horses, camels and yaks on the steppe. These herders are experiencing harsh winters and drier summers, which affects the well-being of livestock. This year, Mongolia has seen a record number of flash floods that have destroyed roads, farms, and pasture.
A reindeer grazes in the snow in the taiga in northern Mongolia. Photo: Byamba Ochir

When their land becomes unsuitable for grazing, most Mongolian herders migrate northwards to more mountainous areas. However, that is not an option for the Dukha.

The willow rods the team discovered have been stored at the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulan Bator for examination by researchers in the future. “We hope one day, after more years of ice patch research, that we may be able to produce a museum exhibit that will showcase these objects to the public and share the importance and urgency of ice patch melting with the world at large,” says Taylor.

“Future research will give us a clearer picture of the historical relationships between reindeer herding and climate, allowing us to understand what the future may hold in a warming world,” he adds.