State of the Planet

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Tree Rings, Ecology and Culture in Mongolia

Selenge River Valley, Mongolia. Photo: Neil Pederson

(Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly named the author of the quote in the second paragraph below.)

Neil Pederson of the Tree Ring Lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory is out there – that is, out beyond where human beings generally tread, in the remote forests of Mongolia. As his colleague, Amy Hessl of West Virginia University, writes in their new blog:

“How do you know when you are in wilderness?  When you have walked beyond where most people walk, when you have left the road, left the (human) trail, passed the cut stumps and horse dung, climbed up over rocks and through burned birch forest and finally when the easiest route to walk is not a path tread by people but rather the path tread by wolves, moose and deer.”

Pederson, Hessl and colleagues from Rocky Mountain Tree Ring Research and the National University of Mongolia are trekking through the steppes and taiga forests of Mongolia to study climate, forests and wildfires, in a multi-year project funded by the National Science Foundation. By collecting tree ring cores, they hope to decode more than 400 years of climate and fire history.

They’re testing whether the hypothesis that a warming climate will increase the incidence of wildfires in such regions. And, they’ll try to understand whether recent climate change has caused unprecedented changes in the number or severity of wildfires, and to identify what climatic combinations could cause forest properties to change significantly from what they had been historically.

Pederson uses his blog to reflect on Mongolian culture, too, and to the changes he sees year to year.

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