Faces of Change

March 13, 2012

The Academy’s Dr. Clyde Goulden says climate change is like the growth of a child. If you see the child on a day-to-day basis, you may not notice the changes. But if you go away for a year and come back, Goulden says, you recognize that he or she is growing up and really changing. So, for nearly two decades, he has been going away and coming back—to the mountains of northern Mongolia. And he is certainly seeing the changes.

In 1994, Goulden witnessed near-perfection in the form of a pristine and ancient lake in the northernmost extension of Mongolia. Roughly 100 miles long and 30 miles wide, Lake Hovsgol is one of the purest freshwater bodies in the world.

"I was very anxious to visit," Goulden recalls. "I wanted to learn more about the lake from what had been studied previously by the Russians and Mongolians. Not much had been published in English, so I wanted to learn what was there and the potential for future study."

Over the next 12 years, Goulden and his colleagues traveled to Mongolia once (sometimes twice) a year on grant-funded assignments for studies in biodiversity assessment, environmental monitoring, land-use management, ecotourism development, social anthropology, and capacity building for young scientists.

Mongolia was a particularly interesting study site with its huge land mass, very small human population, and fairly strict political conditions that prevented a lot of human interference. In the 1990s, it was one of the few places in the world that had study sites that were almost completely pristine, so Goulden’s arrival couldn’t have come at a better time.

In 2008, he shifted his focus to another element of Lake Hovsgol—the nomads who live around it and depend on it to survive. Mongolia has slightly more than 2 million people living in 604,000 square miles, one of the lowest population densities in the world, including one of the last remaining horse-based nomadic cultures.

Goulden met these nomads on his first trip in 1994. He was accompanied on that trip by Academy Senior Fellow Robert Peck, who photographed the nomadic herders and their families to capture the environment’s human element.

"We complement each other," says Peck of his partnership with Goulden. "He’s a scientist with a very matter-of-fact point of view. I’m a humanist, if you will, and I approach it more from a cultural context. We both admire each other’s field of expertise."

For the past two years, Goulden, together with his wife, Tuya, has been interviewing these nomads to get their perspective on how their environment is changing. The environmental changes recorded by Goulden every year are affecting the herders on a daily basis. "The changes they are seeing are substantial. They’re very concerned, and they’re very pessimistic about the future," Goulden says.

Scientific data collected from Lake Hovsgol over the past two decades documents climatic change, including a temperature increase of almost four degrees Fahrenheit over the last 70 years. There is an increase in the severity of rain storms and melting of permafrost, which means the plants are working harder for deep-rooted water, and many species are dying. Fewer plants mean less nourishment for the animals, which are in large part the nomads’ livelihood.

As a result, the herders are selling their animals, moving away from the countryside into urban areas, and leaving behind the lifestyle of their ancestors. "In the middle of Mongolia there are whole cultures that have existed for thousands of years that are having their lives turned upside down in the course of two decades," says Peck.

In addition to telling the herders’ side of the story, Goulden is also concerned with making humanity more aware of the reality of climate change. "What’s happening in Mongolia could be our future here," says Goulden. "The changes that are occurring there could be occurring here over the next 10 or 15 or 20 years. You really have to start thinking about how the changes are affecting people."

"I think people need to know elsewhere in the world that the climate really is changing," Goulden adds. "We need to know that it could happen here and we have to begin to understand how we can adjust to it. This is something that we cannot ignore."

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