Popular understanding of climate change often focuses on rising sea levels and at-risk coastal communities. But climate change is already affecting every region and environment in the world, and the mountains and highlands of Central Asia are predicted to be among the environments most affected. This poses distinct challenges to herding communities whose entire livelihoods can be sent into flux by seemingly minor changes in weather patterns.
A recent study led by Nadia Mijiddorj examines how different climate change scenarios will impact these herders and their livestock, specifically in the Tost region of southern Mongolia. To do so she tracked both meteorological records and herder perceptions across two decades to create a framework for understanding how this region and its inhabitants are affected by changing weather. Tracking herder perceptions allowed researchers to explore environmental changes on a hyperlocal scale that meteorological data might not catch, but also complements the collected scientific data by reinforcing the findings and adding a human element to the final results.
Eight climatic variables were studied between 1995 and 2015, including seasonal temperature, frequency and intensity of precipitation, wind variability, and snow cover. Of the eight variables, meteorological data and herder perceptions tracked the same pattern with five variables at least to some degree.
Three variables most strongly correlated (increasing wind speed, increasing number of windy days, and decreasing snow cover) alone have potential to negatively affect livestock grazing and herding practices. Increased wind can dry out soil and contribute to desertification while a decrease or unpredictability of winter snows can cause drought and death.
Even where the data and perceptions did not chart the same pattern, the majority of the herders interviewed perceived that every variable had drastically changed between the two decades of study. Herders also anecdotally reported that temperatures and other climatic occurrences were overall more variable than they had been previously, and “signs” that had once signaled the beginning and end of seasons were becoming blurred and more indistinguishable.
During these interviews, herders were also presented with nine different climate change scenarios that are either previously published possibilities or possibilities based on the herders’ perceptions and responses. The herders predicted that each scenario would have a negative or large negative effect on their practices.
As even small changes in weather patterns could have drastic effects on their livelihoods, it is crucial that herder responses are taken into account. If herders are forced to abandon their semi-nomadic way of life, or can no longer successfully graze their livestock, they have few good alternatives to turn to. A better understanding of their perceptions and realities is necessary to craft successful mitigation strategies.
The authors extend special thanks to the herder participants of this study. Thank you also to Nature Conservation Foundation and Whitley Nature Fund.
Tserennadmid Nadia Mijiddorj, Justine Shanti Alexander, Gustaf Samelius, Charudutt Mishra, Bazartseren Boldgiv. Traditional livelihoods under a changing climate: herder perceptions of climate change and its consequences in South Gobi, Mongolia. Climatic Ecology. 12 September 2020.