Philadelphia scientist wins top Mongolian award for climate change research

    A Philadelphia scientist has just won the highest honor the Mongolian government awards to foreigners, the Order of the Polar Star.

    The speaker of the Mongolian Parliament presented Academy of Natural Sciences ecologist Clyde Goulden with the medal last week in Washington, D.C. It honors Goulden for his work researching climate change in the country for almost 20 years, as well as training young Mongolian scientists to do the same.

    Recent research on climate change’s impact on herders

    Goulden originally traveled to Mongolia to study the ecology of a ancient, pristine lake there. But in the summer of 2009, he wanted a more localized view of climate change in the country, where the temperature has risen almost 4 degrees over the past 60 years, compared with about 1 degree globally.

    So he went to people whose lives and livelihoods are woven with the weather: Mongolian herders.

    “We would start off with a question such as, are the seasons changing? Is the winter different, is summer different, the spring?” Goulden said. “They immediately said that everything is changing.”

    Over tea, heavy cream and bread in Mongolian gers or yurts, the herders told Goulden the summers were starting later, and they were very worried about changes in rain patterns.

    “They felt that the rains had shifted from more quiet, silky type rains that would last … several days, to very intense rains that would last only 20 to 30 minutes,” Goulden said.

    Those lighter, sustained rains permeate the land and are better for grass growth.

    ‘That rain is gone’

    Goulden’s wife and field translator, Munhtuya Goulden, said Mongolians have at least half a dozen words for “rain,” but the words for the beneficial rain are fading away.

    “That rain is gone,” Munhtuya Goulden said. “These kids in their 20s and close to 30s, they didn’t even know the definition of the rain.”

    Bad rains mean not enough grass. Not enough grass means not enough fat on animals, and not enough fat means entire mixed herds of cows, yaks, sheep and goats can die in a bitter Mongolian winter.

    “What then happens is that these herders who have lost their herds move in to the cities,” Goulden said. “They bring their gers, and they set it up somewhere in the city, and this is a burden, an over-burden in fact, for the cities.”

    Goulden hopes the site-specific, ground-level data he collected over four summers help scientists create more accurate predictions of climate change at the regional level.

    He hopes that will allow Mongolian herders, who make up a third of the country’s population, to better plan for the future.

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