The land degradation and desertification process in Mongolia
The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines desertification as “... degradation of land in
arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas. It is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations”
(UNCCD, 1994). In a broad sense it can be understood as “a process when the fertile land turned into a desert
because of irrational use of natural resources in vulnerable lands, which are affected by successive droughts
due to Global change and resulting climate fluctuations, and thus leading social activities be under the natural
forces”. From this point of view, in modern environment issues related to land degradation, desertification and
drought is becoming a global level concern which is interrelates and incorporate political, social and economic
problems. The assessment of the state of land degradation and desertification, and analysis of its drivers were
done in Mongolia four times since 1990s.
The first nationwide assessment to reveal level of desertification in the country was conducted by the Institute
of Geography, Mongolian Academy of Sciences (MAS), in cooperation with scientists from Desert Research
Institute (former name) of Turkmen Republic through implementing a project on “Survey and map
desertification process in drylands, and develop programme for preventing” back in 1990s. The research
results has clarified exact natural boundaries for Gobi desert, made an attempt to distinguish between human
induced and natural processes of desertification and produced a map of desertification within the drylands of
Mongolia (Цолмон, 1994; Сарантуяа, 1995). The map produced in a framework of this research project until
now have used as the main reference for classifying desertification severity. At that time researchers
concluded that the entire territory of drylands highly susceptible to degradation due to its natural history and
environmental settings, and desertification have affected 44.7 per cents of total territory (Харин., Нацаг.,
1992; Баасан, Даш, Сарантуяа ба бусад, 1992).
In 2000, the second nation-wide assessment of desertification was implemented; however, even though the
methodological framework of the research repeated the previous survey, researchers decided to bring attention
into the grasslands distributed in the middle and northern parts of the country. The assessment reported that
about 40.9 percent of total territory, mainly located in dryland areas, have affected by desertification with
various intensity, and approximately 33.6 per cents of grassland territory have degraded (Даш, 2000).
Comparing the results from 1990 and 2000 assessment it is noticeable that the areal distribution of
desertification in 2000 remained similar as in 1990, but researchers suggested that the severity or the rate
desertification have changed during that period of time. According to results, area of moderately and severely
desertified land increased by 12.3 and 6.3 per cents, respectively; whilst area of slightly desertified territory
decreased by 23.2 per cents. Such result led scientists to conclude that the internal risk of land to be desertified
is increasing; in other words, once the land had some signs of degradation it will continue to get worse with
The advantage of the second nationwide assessment was that it brought the entire territory of the country as a
subject to any kind of ecological disturbance. The author made an attempt to relate specific land use type to
the degradation process, thus formulating a hypothesis of bringing pasture use characteristics as an essential
indicator of degradation process. The results showed that more than 28 per cents of grassland intensively
In period of 2006-2007, an attempt to assess desertification process in relation to climatic features, land use
types and different types of degradation process have done. Researchers tried to follow an ecosystem
approach which is defined as a core concept by UNCCD (Даш, Мандах, 2006; Даш, Мандах, Хауленбек,
2008). The result of this research revealed that about 72 per cents of land degraded or desertified in the
country, of which slight, moderate, severe and severely degraded land occupied 23 %, 26 %, 18 % and 5 %,
The current state of land degradation and desertification
In line with the document of National Action Plan to Combat Desertification 2010-2020, which is approved
the Government of Mongolia in 2010, the nationwide assessment and mapping should be implemented each
five years and reported directly to the Government. In 2011, therefore, with support from Swiss Agency for
Development and Cooperation (SDC) the forth nationwide assessment and mapping land degradation and
desertification was started. During 2011 to 2013, the team of national experts did a tremendous work on
selecting the possible set of indicators to be used in desertification assessment approaching on international
development. Besides it, with the use of remote sensing technology and data available all possible indicators
were evaluated for the entire territory of the country to produce spatially determined and degradation and
desertification assessment and map.
According to the newly developed national methodological framework of the assessment more than 50
indicators have been selected as suitable for Mongolia. In the following sections we will discuss these
indicators and indicators group, which condition evaluated for the state of 2010, will be discussed.
Aridity and its change. To assess the humidity of the climate the different empirical equations were evaluated,
e.g. radiative dryness index by Budyko, aridity index by Thornwaite, water and thermal coefficient of
Selyaninov, for their usefulness and their advantages and disadvantages were determined (Нацагдорж Л.,
2004). L.Natsagdorj (2012) concluded that the spatio-temporal distribution of the V.S.Mezentsev’s humidity
coefficient developed for Western Siberia is much more close to the annual productivity of different
ecosystems. The use of this empirical equation, thus, was selected to assess aridity and delineate regions
susceptible to land degradation and desertification. For the territory of Mongolia the Mezentsev’s humidity
coefficient range between 0.02 to 0.6, and the small area far to the north has value greater than 1.
Figure 1. Distribution map of Mezentsev’s humidity coefficient
The temporal analysis of Mezentsev coefficient which was calculated for all meteorological stations showed
that it has a decreasing trend or the climate become arid. An overall decrease of humidity started to intensify
from the end of 1990s and the average index of humidity level decreased by 3-4 per cents. The greates
decrease within last decade marked in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2009 when the annual humidity level dropped by
7-9 per cents.
Figure 2. Time-series of Mezentsev’s humidity
Figure 3. Change in climatic zones calculated
using Mezentsev’s humidity coefficient
The long-term average value was calculated and compared with baseline average of the period of 1961-1990.
This comparison resulted that since 1995 the humidity level of the climate significantly decreased.
Considering that humid and dry periods are successively change every 11-12 years we can assume that since
2008 the humid period of the climate is started; however, according to the meteorological observations and
outputs of empirical equations the humidity level doesn’t exceed an average of the baseline years. From this it
we can summarize that land degradation and desertification process in Mongolia highly influenced by climate
and its fluctuations.
In terms of spatial distribution, the dryness of the climate gradually increases in steppe and desert steppe
regions; the annual change rate during the period of observation is 0.01-0.05 unit/year. Interestingly, we were
observing slight increase of humidity in arid and extra-arid deserts. In period of 1961-2010, according to the
meteorological data, obtained from the stations, the dryness is increasing in stations like Orkhon, Eruu and
Baruun-Kharaa, which are considered as main agricultural region. If the climate continues to change in current
pace it will become necessary to define new policy and adopt new technologies in agricultural sector.
Drought condition and changes. Drought is a climatic anomaly condition that occurs seasonally in particular
territory (Natsagdorj L., Dulamsuren M., Tsatsral B., 2002) and can occur in any part of tropical and middle
latitude zones. The UN CCD defined drought as “the naturally occurring phenomenon that exists when
precipitation has been significantly below normal recorded levels, causing serious hydrological imbalances
that adversely affect land resource production systems.” This agrees with the common understanding:
drought is a growing season phenomenon - a combination of weather and biological factors, where the soil
moisture reserve has been depleted because loss of water by high evaporation and transpiration rate,
precipitation deficiency for prolonged periods of time negatively affecting agricultural crop growth and high
Since Mongolia lies mostly in the dry climate zone it belongs to drought-prone territory. In the major parts of
the high mountain belt region, forest steppe and steppe zones there is a probability of 1-2 drought occurrences
in a 10 years period and in the desert steppe zone there is drought every other year, in middle ground between
Warm period precipitation, mm
Mezentsev's humidity coefficient
Мезенцевийн чийгшлийн итгэлцүүр
Хур тунадас, мм
Талбайн эзлэх хувь
the steppe zone and desert steppe zones drought occurs once in every 3 years. The drought frequency
increases from north to south, east to west, and corresponds to Mongolia’s humidity distribution patterns.
Drought condition and changes are calculated based on the satellite data, therefore normalized drought
difference index (NDDI), which is a MODIS data standard index, was analyzed. Comparative analyses of
drought changes in the years 2000 and 2010, indicate significant increase of drought in Great Lake
Depression, Lake valley and Southern parts of Gobi. In Khangai mountains, Orkhon Selenge valley and
Southern Altai Gobi the drought condition is slightly decreasing (Монгол орны цөлжилтийн атлас, 2013).
Also drought changes were calculated and mapped using the drought data of the last 11 years. It indicates
that major parts of the territory experiences drought conditions of 2-3 years within the 10 year period, in the
southern parts of Gobi desert and Kherlen River region drought occurs for 4-5 years within the given period,
and in Great Lake depression and Lakes valley the drought conditions occur 8-10 years and or almost every
year. However, in the Khangai mountains and Eastern parts of Gobi over the period of 1 – 5 years the drought
intensity had decreased (Khudulmur, Bayasgalan et al., 2013).
Water erosion and change. One of the main drivers of land degradation and desertification is water erosion,
which need to assess to distinguish natural side of this complex phenomenon. There are not much research
conducted in Mongolia to assess influence of water erosion and its rate. The limited number of surveys were
done to evaluate this process at the regional level during 1980s (Санжмятав, 1993; Сугар, Санжмятав,
1987). Due to incapability of the current environmental data to show the state of water erosion and its change
over time, an attempt to use widely recognised physical model in order to evaluate erosion process has been
Using physical model called Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) an annual soil loss from the unit
of land has been calculated in relation to climatic and land cover condition for 2000 and 2010 periods. The
results indicated that approximately 300-400 tons of soils per annum are lost due to active influence of
flowing water. The comparison of results for selected two years revealed that water erosion in average have
increased and the about 500-600 tons of soil lost. This information can lead to draw conclusion that water
erosion might influence on land degradation and desertification.
In spatial distribution of water erosion it is area and intensity is high in mountainous regions and along
piedmonts, especially in Mongol Altai, Gobi Altai, Gobi type piedmonts and southern parts of Khangai and
Khan Khukhii mountains the intensity of erosion is very high. The main causes of intensive water erosion in
above mentioned regions related to vegetation cover, surface slope, soil development and rainfall erosivity,
which may act independently or in correlation among themselves. The moderate erosion observed in middle
part of the country occupying vast area of grassland and major river basins, whilst slight erosion marks can be
identified in Great Lake depression, Lake valley and eastern parts of Gobi mainly represented by low height
mountains and depressions.
Within last 10 years, soil erosion due to water has increased in northern parts of the country, which are
probably determined by intensive rainfall and decreased vegetation cover. The change analysis of land
affected by water erosion states that about 3 per cents of total land affected by water erosion could be
classified as extremely eroded. Overall water erosion process has not significantly changed during past
decade, and it can be concluded that in most of the territory water erosion have slight impact.
Figure 4. Comparison of water erosion in 2000 and
Figure 5. Percentage of areas affected by water
Wind erosion and change. The one of the signs that land is degraded is occurrence of dust storms, which is for
many reasons explained as driver of the degradation and desertification process. The impact of wind on soil
surface has various forms, but dust storm should be understood as the most severe form of erosion. Although
impact of wind on soil and vegetation cover has to be an integral part of desertification research such survey
has been abandoned in Mongolia. The only research may addressed by L.Natsagdorj, who researched erosive
impact of wind, wind velocity and attempted to explain it in relation to current climate conditions.
The wind erosion for the entire territory of Mongolia is assessed first time using wind erosion equation
(WEQ). Soil erosion maps for the years 2000 and 2010, calculated using these factors, demonstrate that there
is a high degree of wind erosion along the desert zone, Great Lakes Depression, and the Lakes Valley.
Especially soil around the Baruun Khuurain Khotgor, Southern Altai Govi, Ulaan Nuur Lake, Mandal-Ovoo
territories have the highest degree of wind erosion. These areas have a limited vegetative cover and a little
surface sloping, limited barriers and etc., played a role in the wind erosion process. Otherwise, all the indexes
calculated for these areas have high values.
Mongolia’s steppe, desert steppe zones, especially steppes of Dornod and areas of Zamyn Uud and Sainshand
belong to lands with moderate degree of soil erodibility. Mountain regions fall under areas which soils are not
affected by wind erosion or these factors have improved compared to previous years.
Wind erosion changes can clearly be observed in the southern part of Govi-Altai, Bayankhongor, Omnogovi
Aimags, particularly, in the valleys and depressions of desert areas like Sharga, Nomin, Ingen hoovor,
Galba and Borzon Deserts. When comparing the years 2000 and 2010, it was calculated that 165.7 tn/ha soil
was carried away in these areas. However, there is evidence of the wind erosion process decreasing on the
west side of the Great Lakes Depression and the territory along the Khar Us Lake and the Buyant River basin.
Soil loss in these areas for the given period tend to reduce.
Percent of change
Very severely eroded
Figure 6. Wind velocity and its change (during 2000-2010)
There is a general notion that wind erosion mainly defined by wind velocity, thus the dynamics of wind speed
over the territory were analysed. From the analysis it was concluded that wind velocity is gradually
decreasing; however, frequency of wind with speed above 5 m/s is slightly increasing. Besides, any erosion
process is determined by land cover condition. According to Japanese researchers the occurrences of spring
dust storms are depend from the soil moisture content and vegetation condition in previous year (Kurosaki,
Shinoda, 2011). This may apply to those regions where the wind erosion during last decade has decreased.
The change in vegetation cover. The value of NDVI in Mongolia is differ from region to region: in Gobi
desert region it is 0.05-0.18, in steppe and forest-steppe region it is 0.2-0.35, in forest steppe and forest region
it is 0.4-0.5. The time-series analysis of NDVI within period of 2000-2010 revealed that during 2000-2003 the
value of NDVI have decreased for whole territory, but from 2005 its value is fluctuating but have slightly
increasing trend. The analysis of NDVI value in different natural zones indicated its high variation in steppe
and desert region, and from 2005 an average value become close to these which represent real deserts. From
this it can be concluded that desert steppe (or Gobi) region is more having desert-like look.
According to the observation of growing seasons, the duration of plant growing period has shortened in forest
steppe and steppe zones, but in the southern parts (desert-steppe, semi-desert and desert zones) it tends to
increase in length. The results obtained were similar to researches done at the global level, and proves in the
northern hemisphere a plant growing season have prolonged as a consequence of the warming.
The vegetation cover change analysis indicated that during last decade vegetation cover steadily greening or
getting better in regions as Mongol-Daurian steppe, Eastern Gobi hollow, Southern Gobi undulating plains
and along Khangai mountai chains. The negative changes; however, marked in Khubsugul region, Orkhon-
Selenge low height mountain region, Central Khalkha highlands and in Eastern Steppe regions, where NDVI
value decreased 1-2 times.
Although the general picture of vegetation cover change is seen unequal during the last ten years, the
vegetation cover has continuous decreasing trend more in the Mongol Altai mountains, Great Lake
depression, Western parts of Khubsugul mountain, Orkhon-Selenge river basin, Central Khalkha highlands,
Southern Gobi and Dariganga regions.
Сарын салхины дундаж хурд, м/с
12 per. Mov. Avg. (Сарын салхины дундаж хурд, м/с)
5 м/с дээш хурдтай салхины тоо
12 per. Mov. Avg. (5 м/с дээш хурдтай салхины тоо)
Figure 7. Mann-Kendall trend analysis of MODIS-NDVI time series for Mongolia
Changes in livestock spatial distribution. In the past livestock number has not remained constant and kept
fluctuating in a “growing-declining-growing-declining” pattern. Such unstable growth of livestock is highly
determined by natural and climatic factors which directly affect nomadic pastoralist system of livestock
breading. The significant reductions in livestock number was happened in 1983, 1993, 1999-2002 and 2009-
2010, mainly due to the severe drought and the dzud (Open Forum, 2004; Natsagdorj L. and Sarantuya G.,
2003). Natural disasters such as droughts, dzud, strong winds, storms, extreme cold temperatures reported
since 1999 resulted a sharp decline of livestock numbers, especially, in 1999-2002 the successive occurrence
of drought and dzud, continued for two years, occupied 60-70 per cent of the Mongolian territory, caused a
loss of 11 million heads of livestock, and depriving and devastating 12 thousand herder families of their main
source of livelihood. The latest hardship occurred in 2009-2010 due to zud; during which totally 8.5 million
livestock have lost, from 220 totally affected households 44 families lost their whole flock and 164 families
lost half of their flock. The influence of climatic change, especially, in form of frequent natural disasters
highly impact livestock sector, which is visible in livestock live weight, flock structure and herders’
In spatial distribution, about 32 per cent of total livestock of Mongolia lives in Khangai region, 29 per cent is
in western region, 15 per cent is herded in eastern region, 14 per cent in Govi region and the 9 per cent is
counted in central part of Mongolia. Livestock density is quite sparse throughout the nation. Highly density
places are Myangad, Dariv Soums of Khovd Aimag, Bayan-Uul, Jargalan and Delger Soums of Govi-Altai
Aimag, Khureemaral, Buutsagaan Soums of Bayankhongor Aimag, Bogd, Bayangol Soums of Ovorkhangai
Aimag, Erdenedalai soum of Dundgovi Aimag, Khatanbulag soumof Dornogovi Aimag, Bayandelger,
Erdenetsagaan Soums of Sukhbaatar Aimag and Tsagaan-Ovoo soum of Dornod Aimag. The situation is
repeated in most of the regions by 2000. However, comparing the livestock number to the years’ of 2000 and
2010, there is a change in central and eastern parts of Mongolia. Especially, growing livestock density, which
can affect to the pastureland capacity and resources is remained in such places: Gurvanbulag, Rashaant Soums
of Bulgan Aimag, Khatanbulag soum of Dornogovi Aimag, Bayandelger, Erdenetsagaan Soums of Sukhbaatar
Aimag, Bayankhutag and Kherlen Soums of Khentii Aimag and Choibalsan Soum of Dornod Aimag.
Figure 8. Livestcok density for 2010, in head/sq.km
Spatial changes in population settlements. Demographically, the other factor to influence to the land
degradation is the population distribution. With the society development, urbanization process is an
inseparable part of historical development of civilization. Mongolia started to talk about centralization of
population since 1970s under the state policy to targeted at developing industries rather than the development
of cities. However, population centralization itself becomes the main cause of land deterioration as well as
strengthening agricultural industries in those places according to the laws of market.
Settled population in Mongolia reached at 2407.5 thousand as if 2000, and raised at 2780.8 thousand by the
end of 2010. These differences show 373.3 thousand and 13.4 percent growth. This is surely related to the
growth of birth rate and the birth in 1000 people is 22.9, increased by 2.5 comparing to the estimation of 2000.
Similar to these estimation there is quite changes in population settlement and location. In last two decades, by
the population movement from rural areas to cities, 41.4 per cent of Mongolian population lives in
Ulaanbaatar by 2010. Nationally, 63.3 % of Mongolian total population, 1760.4 thousand people, is living in
urban areas. (Statistical Information Bureau, 2000-2010) Especially, more than half of the population in
Dornod, Dornogovi, Govisumber, Orkhon and Darkhan-Uul Aimags are living in the urban or settled areas.
According to the demographic changes, population in urban areas, towns and Soum centers is growing and
contributing to population centralization. This trend is clear to continue in the near future. These changes, in
population settlement may become the causes of land degradation and ecological status of places near urban
Figure 9. Land degradation and desertification in Mongolia for 2010.
The level of desertification and prevailing factors of land degradation was estimated and mapped in 2013,
through analysis of above mentioned processes. As a result of this research it was reported that 77.8 per cents
of the total territory affected by degradation, of which 35.3 per cents defined as slightly degraded, 25.9 per
cents – moderately, 6.7 per cents severely and 9.9 per cents – extremely. Comparing this results with previous
assessment it can be concluded that overall land degradation situation has a little changes; however, spatial
distribution of lands heavily and extremely affected by degradation have changed significantly. Especially,
there are many new places where extreme degradation situation newly formed.
Various factors that change over space and time determine the desertification process. Such factors include
indirect factors such as population increase, socio-economic, political, and international trade, and direct
factors such as land utilization method, and climate change. Today desertification issue stems from
inappropriate usage of limited natural resources. Then the issue gets even crucial with climate change affect.
Based on the numeric index of desertification map, a map of factors with major affect in the issue was
developed. The map of factors shows that 10.4% has no affect from factors or with no sign of desertification,
1.9% is human action factor, 16.0% is natural factor, 13.8% is a climate factor, 20.8% is wind erosion factor,
0.1% with water erosion, 13.1% is combined factor of human action and climate, 23.9% is a combined factor
of wind and human action. It means 10.4 % is no sign of desertification or no factor, 39% is human action
prevailed or combined, 50.6% is natural factor prevailed or combined. In other words, natural factor plays
56% and human action factors in 44% in heavily or very heavily deserted areas (Монгол орны цөлжилтийн
Researchers mentioned that an increase of degraded land may cause adverse effect on regional climate (Xue
Y., Shukla, 1993; Xue, 1996; Gomboluudev, Natsagdorj, 2004). Gomboluudev and Natsagdorj (2004) pointed
that large-scale changes occurring in land cover will subsequently impact moisture regime in regional climate.
If degradation process will gradually develop and area of barren land will increase the amount of precipitation
and evapotranspiration will decrease resulting intensive aridification of the climate. Researchers reported that
increase in aridity may will significant in Central and Eastern parts of the country, which they proved by
regional climate model outputs.
Policy and action recommendations
Mongolia became a party of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification in 1996 and as it suggested
following all its decisions. For instance, it is actively implementing its action plan to combat desertification
and if necessary timely act to revise, to amend and to adopt this document in line with current socio-economic
and political needs. During past years, following requirement of UNCCD Secretariat the Government of
Mongolia has been reporting all its actions to fulfil the implementation of the Convention in its country and
best practices achieved to reach individual goals. The year of 2014 is a year for development of fifth report to
Mongolian Government made a few changes in its policy to combat desertification, which was mainly
influenced by announcing a decade to combat desertification by UN and adoption of new strategy by UNCCD
in 2008 for the next 18 years. On other hands, research results and scientists conclusions mainly focused on
establishment of strong legal and policy background to combat desertification supporting scientific
elaborations realized through coherent and leveraged policy in action.
Today, the national policy to combat desertification is follow the National Action Plan to Combat
Desertification adopted by the Government in 2010 and Law on Soil Protection and Combating
Desertification approved by the Parliament of Mongolia. Besides these policy and legal documents Mongolian
Government tries to reflect combating desertification issues into the sectoral policies, which define policy
issues, are relatively solved in this country. The combating desertification problem can only be implemented
with strong, coherent and transparent policy not only in environmental but also in different sectors; however,
in policy documents doesn’t completely emphasize this issue.
The following issues need to be carefully analysed and implemented to ensure the national policy is in act:
1. Even though Mongolia has made an effort to assess the degradation/desertification over its land it is
still has not established monitoring system or framework to collect data/information and generate
knowledge to validate assessments’ results. The establishment of national monitoring system and
developing specific programme for conduct should narrow any analytical works related to assessment
and mapping, thus improve combating desertification actions at all level. The current actions taken by
Mongolia to combat desertification consists of a short list of actions (e.g. tree plantation,
establishment of forest strips, protection of water wells) which has a little impact on the ground. The
definition of process and causes in detail may benefit land users and all interested stakeholders
improve land use strategy, define priority actions and promote conservation approach, which are
driven from solid monitoring data and knowledge generated.
2. The current process of degradation/desertification of land caused not only by climate change but also
by changes in land use occurred in last hundred years. The nomadic pastoralist system is now
adapting to socio-economic transformation, which is resulted formation of economic centers and
centralization of social relations around it. Such centralization has also been observed in distribution
of livestock, so we can assume that there are lands where human-driven degradation may exist. The
researches dedicated to assess magnitude of human impact on land, therefore, has to be a priority
field, especially evaluation of economic loss due to land degradation. On other hand, it will be
feasible to conduct specific research programmes which will determine impact of ecosystem service
deterioration on economy. Such approach will benefit policy and decision makers establish economic
instruments that could coordinate and synchronize land use types and their intensity.
3. Even though we employing limited types of combat desertification actions (e.g. tree plantation, well
restoration etc.) at the global level there many different promising technologies adapted to specific
environment are developed. It is, therefore, necessary to pay attention on experimental technology
researches which will mainly focused on adoption of appropriate land use technology to avoid any
risk of degradation. The practical side of such measures would be increased incentives for land users,
economic benefits to save resources, and capacity building at all level. It will also increase awareness
towards best practices which are suitable and can replace old not environmentally friendly actions.
4. All environmental issues need to be communicating to general public, their awareness and knowledge
considered as an essential power. Giving proper information and allowing land users apply knowledge
in their land use practice could be a good strategy to increase awareness. Besides it organizing
different informal trainings, connecting people through workshops and establishing campaigns to
promote combating desertification activities are essential.
Finally, desertification and land degradation engage all the natural processes and affect many ecosystem
services, it is recommended to follow ecosystem-based approach, and act consistently, coherently and
interrelate all possible forces.
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