Climate change is happening virtually everywhere and is one of the biggest threats facing humanity and life on Earth. As climate change continues across the world, global temperatures are expected to rise, weather events are predicted to become more severe and frequent, and the alteration of ecosystems and wildlife habitats is expected to accelerate. According to the IPCC Working Group Impact, adaptation, and vulnerability report (2007), desert and semi-desert ecosystems, are the most vulnerable ecosystems to climate change impacts due to precipitation fluctuation, future warming trends, and frequent disastrous events. However, there is little information about how climate change may affect the Gobi environment in Central Asia and people’s livelihoods at the regional and local scales.
This research aims to understand how climate change will affect four different systems (atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere, anthroposphere) in Mongolia’s Gobi region. More specifically, the research aims to assess how climate change will affect 1. rangeland vegetation (biosphere) and 2. soil characteristics (geosphere) assess, 3. how herder livelihoods are affected by climate change impacts (anthroposphere), and assess 4. weather and climatic trends over the last 20 years at the local level in the South Gobi region (atmosphere).
To do this, I used a multi-disciplinary approach, including empirical environmental research and both qualitative and quantitative social research. I examined vegetation responses to experimentally simulated climate change (warming, increased and decreased rainfall) and grazing (clipping vegetation) between 2016 and 2019 in Tost Bag in Gurvantes Soum of the South-Gobi, Mongolia. I also assessed how the soil physicochemical properties (soil pH, CaCO3, P2O5, SOC, EC, NO3, bulk density, and dry mass) responded to the experimental climate and grazing simulations. Soil physicochemical properties assessments were conducted at the Soil laboratory of the Institute of Geography and Geo-ecology, Mongolian Academy of Sciences. To assess how local herders were coping with climatic impacts, I conducted 42 semi-structured interviews in the Gurvantes Soum. I discussed with the herders how climatic factors such as dzud and drought could affect their livelihood decision-making, including engaging in informal or illegal mining, becoming a contracted herder, or opening a small business in nearby settlements. Climatic trends for the Gurvantes Soum were assessed by combining information from herder perceptions collected through 32 additional household surveys and meteorological data from a weather station in the Gurvantes Soum. I asked interviewees if they had perceived changes in eight meteorological variables, including winter temperature, summer temperature, summer precipitation, frequency in intense rain, frequency in drizzle rain, wind speed, number of windy days, and snow cover between 1995 and 2015.
My experimental result revealed that grazing and climate change manipulations reduced vegetation cover by 35-37% (mean: 8.1 gm2) and biomass by 23% (mean: 1.67 gm2) but did not affect species richness (χ2=0.21, df= 3, p=0.98). All targeted plant species responded differently to increasing or decreasing trends to each climatic and grazing treatment and showed species-specific responses with some species increasing and some species decreasing. The climate warming chambers (n=10) showed an increased growth period by an average of 12 days (10-15 days). The soil physicochemical properties assessments showed that the mountain desert steppe landscape in the study area was characterized by sandy loam texture and was alkaline in nature (63.4% of sand content; 21.6% of silt content, and 5% of clay content). This result suggests that the soil was less capable of retaining organic carbon compared to clay-dominated soils. The climate change manipulations showed that an increase in both temperature and precipitation combined with grazing resulted in soil physicochemical properties. Temperature increases of 2 degrees Celsius led to a reduction in organic compounds of the soil and thereby and enrichment of sand in the soil sandy soil characteristics (Anova test: F1,9= 37.08, p>0.05) while a precipitation increase of 50% led to higher soil salinity (Anova test: F2,24= 10.47, p>0.05). In addition, grazing effects had a positive impact on soil organic carbon (Anova test: F1,16=23.69, p< 0.001).
Our semi-structured interviews suggested that livelihood diversification strategies are linked to natural climatic hazards (n= 37, 89%), as well as to political and socio-economic factors (n= 5, 11%). Based on the number of livestock owned, different types of herding typologies were identified in the Gurvantes Soum, including ninja miners (livestock owned n=83.6, SD=58.9), contracted herders (livestock owned n=25, SD=18.7), shared herding (herders take turn to herd each others livestock) (livestock owned n=196, SD=61), herding for others (livestock owned n=321, SD=53.2), true herders herding only their own animals (100% sustain their livelihood by livestock income) (livestock owned n=391, SD=53.2) and rich herders (livestock owned n=784, SD=347). According to the additional household surveys, all herders perceived significant changes in the local weather patterns. Most (94% n= 31) herders reported seasonal shifts, with extreme variations between warm and cool seasons over the last 20 years. Based on focus group discussions, herders agreed that 6 of the 10 climate change scenarios presented would have strong negative impacts on their practices and livelihoods and that none of the scenarios would have positive effects. The meteorological data from the same time period showed an increase in windy days (tau = 0.434, p=0.008) and wind speed (tau = 0.354, p=0.027), a decrease in snow cover (tau = - 0.462, p=0.033), and trends for an increase in the frequency of intense rains (tau = 0.285, p=0.077) and a decreasing in the frequency of drizzle rains (tau = 0.328, p=0.090) although this was significant only at α = 0.10.
My experimental results suggest that the mountain desert steppe zone is at risk of desertification from increasing temperatures and precipitation in the future. The temperature increase was found to decrease vegetation cover and biomass. The experiment also showed that increased precipitation, which was added to simulate intense rains where the total amount of rain increased but the frequency of rainy days decreased, also reduced vegetation cover and biomass. Furthermore, the experiment also showed that temperature increases reduced the organic carbon in the soils and that flush floods increased the salinity. The research also suggested that a range of livestock management strategies could mitigate climate change impacts. The climate change experiment results suggested that light grazing increased the soil’s carbon content, potentially offsetting carbon emissions in mountain desert steppe regions. I recommend further studies to assess vegetation and soil responses to different climate change and grazing strategies (heavy, medium, light).
Another key finding from this study was that people’s livelihoods are impacted strongly by climate change. Rural herders reported a range of coping mechanisms for dealing with changes in the weather and the rangeland, including diversifying their livelihoods. Herders reported that they seek alternative sources of income from activities such as ninja mining when they lose livestock due to events such as natural hazards. The number of ninja miners could be used to indicate and measure climate change impacts on livelihoods in particular areas.
Finally, my results suggest that herder perceptions of climate change appeared to be more focused on rangeland-related changes than the direct meteorological changes themselves. People’s perceptions of climate change are particularly important to provide insights on factors that put their livelihoods at risk directly. Based on my study, herders will be forced to move often with future changes in the climate, leading to rangeland competition among herders. Herder livelihood and herding decisions seemed to be highly responsive to climatic impacts, and their knowledge needs to be incorporated into rangeland and climate change management strategies.
This research helps provide insights on understanding how climate change may impact the mountain desert steppe and the livelihoods of its inhabitants. It also provides recommendations on how to enhance future ecological and societal resilience to climate change. Traditional knowledge and working closely with herding communities by incorporating their perspectives and views will be essential to develop adapted pastoral management strategies. This work concludes that climate change impacts are influencing multiple aspects of the mountain desert steppe zone, including the climate, local vegetation, soil characteristics, herder livelihoods, and decision making. My research also shows that there is a need for continued research in understanding how climate change is influencing the Gobi environment and putting peoples’ livelihoods at risk. This research provides a foundation for future in-depth assessments.