Field Notes #1

Why do we work in Mongolia?

The scientists of MACRO have been finalizing study sites, ordering equipment and supplies, and making travel arrangements for a September 2017 expedition to Mongolia. As the trip approaches, we wanted to provide some information about why we chose to study Mongolian rivers in the first place. Read on to learn about some of the major geographic, cultural, and scientific reasons why river research in Mongolia is such a deliberate and important part of our river macrosystem study.

Mongolia is a country about 3.5 times the size of California, located between China (to the south) and Russia (to the north). The majority of Mongolian land is part of the temperate steppe biome, which includes regions that are usually fairly dry, with cold winters and hot summers and vegetation ranging from prairie grasses to semi-desert scrub. As an example, the Great Plains of the United States, from Kansas grasslands to Yellowstone National Park, to the deserts of Nevada, are all representative of the temperate steppe biome. The United States and Mongolia contain some of the largest expanses of temperate steppe plains in the world.

The temperate steppe biome has been disturbed and altered by humans for centuries, making it particularly vulnerable to the additional stressor of a changing climate. In Mongolia, air temperatures are rising much faster than they are in the United States. This allows us to use observations from Mongolia to better understand future climate change scenarios for the United States, especially as it relates to the organisms and functions of river systems.

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Mongolian rivers exemplify a rare scientific control system for river ecology. Because Mongolia has such a low population density and a high cultural value for the traditional nomadic lifestyle, human impacts on the environment are very low. Mongolian rivers also lack introduced species and high head dams, making these some of the last remaining natural and intact freshwaters of the global temperate steppe biome. For these reasons, the observed conditions of United States rivers could help to predict future changes to Mongolian rivers as well, as the country continues to develop and to contemplate plans for large hydroelectric dams.

The MACRO study is one of the first of its kind and is expected to have important lessons to offer for conservation efforts in the United States, Mongolia, and beyond.

— Emily Arsenault, University of Kansas