Contributions of the Mongolian LTER to Science and Society in the 21st Century
Clyde E. Goulden Director
Institute for Mongolian Biodiversity and Ecological Studies Academy of Natural Sciences
The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) program in the United States has made important contributions to our understanding of ecosystem level processes including biogeochemical cycles, plant primary production, the structure of ecosystems, and the relationship between ecosystem dynamics and biodiversity.
As the LTER approach is adopted in other regions of the World, it will assume new functions beyond the contributions to scientific theory and research. I will discuss additional aspects of the LTER research approach relevant in countries like Mongolia that can help contribute to an understanding of our environment today, and the coming environmental changes of the 21st Century.
In Mongolia, there has been a long tradition of environmental protection, dating back to Ghengis Khan in the 13th Century. For historical and geographical reasons, Mongolia has not been heavily developed. Large areas of the country near its borders remain almost pristine. The Government intends to protect up to 30% of the country in national parks and strictly protected areas. If realized, this will be one of the largest conservation programs in the World. However, the habitats and biodiversity of the proposed park areas are presently poorly known. The research sites of the Mongolian LTER network will be located in major national parks. The first LTER site has been established at Hovsgol National Park. The initial goal of scientists associated with this site will be to collect all available data, and begin to organize a database of information on Lake Hovsgol and its watershed.
Until recently, the negative impacts of local economic development have not been serious. Regional and global environmental changes, caused by economic development elsewhere, and transported to Mongolia by the atmospheric winds (e.g., air-borne chemicals such as pesticides, and acid rain,) are present but have caused little evident damage in this arid and semi-arid landscape. Global climate change, however, is evident, as measured by an increase in air temperature throughout Mongolia.
Mongolia has a very sensitive environment. Annual precipitation is very low, ranging from less than 400 mm in the north to less than 100 mm in the southern one half of the country, with very low precipitation levels in the Gobi. Precipitation is highly seasonal, concentrated in the mid-summer with the remaining year dry. Evaporation and evapo-transpiration losses of water are high. The soil compacts easily, slowing the regrowth of vegetation. The arid climate and strong winds produce dust storms.
This sensitive environment is now affected by rapid economic growth. Increased sizes of grazing stock, sheep, cattle and horses is causing serious overgrazing of the steppe grasslands. Cattle and automobiles compact the soil and destroy vegetation. Forest trees are being cut. Unregulated mining of gold, coal, and other minerals is increasing erosion and affecting river channels. As soils hold less moisture and ground water is poorly recharged, rivers have more frequent floods during the rainy season and become dry during the late winter dry season. Three major rivers were dry last spring. The northern one half of Mongolia is underlain by permafrost which is now melting. The consequences of permafrost melt are unknown at this time.
The Mongolian Government has enacted good laws to protect the environment, but does not have the financial resources to enforce these laws. Nor does it have financial resources to define and understand the problems.
The Government is supporting the development of an LTER program under the direction of The Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
The Mongolian Academy of Sciences has initially established two major goals for its LTER program: (1.) Define impacts of climate change on the physical chemical environment and biodiversity; and (2.) Help encourage ecological tourism in national parks by providing information about local habitats and their biodiversity.
Additional critical goals of the Mongolian LTER program include:
1.LTER should encourage scientists with different scientific expertise to work together. Group research improves our ability to synthesize the contributions of many individual scientists into a broader framework to define emerging patterns difficult for individual scientists to define or too complex for present mathematical theory to discover or explain.
2.LTER scientists will contribute to the understanding and protection of biodiversity by helping to define regional biota of national parks, critical migratory pathways, and essential habitats.
3.LTER research should contribute to an understanding of environmental sustainability.
4.LTER research should help define solutions to protect critical resources for the future, such as water supplies.
The Mongolian LTER program is now reviewing potential locations for its LTER network sites. Fortunately, there are some established studies and locations where data were collected by the joint Mongolian and Russian Expeditions. These historical data sets can be used as a baseline for detecting future environmental impacts and changes. One of the best of these has been the Mongolian Russian Expedition to Lake Hovsgol in northern Mongolia. The research at Hovsgol has continued to the present, and has been joined by scientific researchers from the United States and Japan.
However, much of the in-country data are not generally available, or published. One of the first steps will be to establish a general database. A workshop is being planned to organize this effort.
At each LTER site research goals will be defined and study sites selected, based on the design of the research, and based on information from prior scientific studies. The research program at Lake Hovsgol LTER is now being defined. It will emphasize studies of the impact of permafrost melt in the watershed on the forests and on the endemic biodiversity of the tributary streams and the lake.