Studying the Effects of Climate Change in Mongolia

More than a dozen students from Penn’s Biology department have undertaken a long and arduous trek into the steppes of Northern Mongolia this summer, where they will join staff and faculty already in the field. The group will camp in traditional felt yurts as they simulate the effects of climate change on this remote and understudied region.

Their efforts are part of the National Science Foundation’s Partnerships for International Research and Education, or PIRE, which Penn has been part of since 2008.

Because up to one-third of Mongolia’s population lives as nomadic herders who rely upon grazing livestock, even small changes in ecology could have a profound effect on the nation. The researchers are simulating warming climate by using miniature greenhouse chambers to alter the temperature of the ground they are placed over. The researchers are also experimenting with changes to the amount and frequency of rain and animal grazing the chambers receive.

“We can project into the future the kinds of changes the plants and soil microbes will experience,” Penn biology professor and team member Brenda Casper says.

Another facet of the project involves collecting historical climate data through tree cores, as well as personal accounts of changes in recent growing seasons collected from local herders. Working with local people, both herders and scientists, is crucial to the project’s success, as PIRE’s goals are equally based in research and education.

As part of PIRE’s educational mandate, Project Coordinator Daniel Brickley is encouraging team members to write about their experiences from the field. Some of their writing can be seen at The New York Times Scientist at Work blog.

“Science doesn’t just happen in this sterile lab, where we’re all wearing white jackets,” Brickley says. “It can happen in the field, where things go terribly wrong—or terribly right. …Climate change is such a big issue, especially how it is affecting a developing country like Mongolia. It’s important for students to see how the science is done, and to see if this is a career they might be interested in pursing.”

Text by Evan Lerner
Video by Kurtis Sensenig