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KLIMAFORSK-Stort program klima

Permafrost ecosystems entangled with human life in Mongolia- evaluating the impact of land use change in a warming climate

Alternative title: Permafrost økosystemer innviklet med menneskelig liv i Mongolia - effekten av endringer i arealbruk i et varmere klima

Awarded: NOK 12.0 mill.

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Project Period:

2020 - 2024

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The Permafrost4Life project investigates permafrost and climate in Mongolia with a combination of field measurements, remote sensing and numerical modeling. In particular, the project investigates the complex relationship between permafrost, ecosystems and the traditional herder lifestyle that is of great importance for the Mongolian society even today. The southern boundary of the Eurasian permafrost runs straight across Mongolia, and climate change has already led to a significant reduction of the permafrost area in the last decades. In a study currently under review, the project team has evaluated air temperature measurements since the 1950s from dozens of meteorological stations throughout Mongolia which clearly show that climate conditions have become much less favorable for permafrost occurrence. As 2020, the year 2021 was again dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic which has unfortunately prevented travel between Mongolia and Norway up to now. To stop the spread of Covid-19, the Mongolian government suspended all international travel to and from Mongolia. This helped to keep infection rates extremely low until April 2021 when an outbreak of the then new delta variant occurred. Since April, the numbers have risen continuously, and at present Mongolia is one of the countries with the world-wide highest Covid-19 infection rates, so that travel restrictions will likely not be lifted in the near future. Despite this extremely difficult situation, the Mongolian Permafrost4Life team has managed to conduct several field campaigns in spring and summer 2021. They in particular established field sites in the region around lake Hovsgol and in the Henti mountains, where the effects of grazing and forestry on ground temperatures and permafrost can be studied. The Norwegian project team is now fully assembled and has concentrated on establishing models for permafrost and ecosystem development in Mongolia. In fall 2020, we have released the CryoGrid permafrost model as an open-source community tool so that joint model development can be coordinated among permafrost researchers. We have subsequently worked with international partners to improve CryoGrid so that it can now simulate how a forest cover influences the thermal regime of permafrost. Collaboration between Norwegian and Mongolian researchers continues through remote meetings and workshops. We have in particular organized a remote workshop to train researchers and students in Mongolia in CryoGrid, so that they are now able to conduct permafrost simulations themselves and contribute to the future development of the community model.

Central Asia is one of the very few areas in the world were ecosystems and human life are heavily entangled with the Cryosphere, with a continental climate favoring the occurrence of permafrost. About one third of Mongolian municipalities are located in permafrost areas, and the density of livestock is by far highest in permafrost-dominated regions. This is due to more abundant water sources, thus sustaining a traditional, semi-nomadic lifestyle for about 30% of the population of Mongolia, while also supplying food to the growing urban centers. Permafrost provides water from melting ground ice in the dry summer season, or by preventing rainwater from infiltrating into deeper layers, thus leaving it available for plant growth. Increases in temperature have led to ongoing and well-documented degradation of permafrost, while strong increases of both population and livestock (> 60 million animals) in the recent decade put ecosystems in Mongolia under additional pressure from grazing and deforestation. With both changes accelerating in the recent decade, the delicate balance between climate forcing, ecosystem response and human land use has come under threat. In strong contrast, there is little quantitative knowledge how the sensitive ecosystems will react to these multi-source stresses, leaving risks for irreversible changes that will complicate sustainable land use in the future. Permafrost4Life aims at a better understanding and quantification of climate-ecosystem interaction, with a special focus on the role of the ground thermal regime within this interplay. The ultimate goal is to use this knowledge to help policy-making and land use management, with experiences stretching far outside Mongolia. To reach these goals we will use field experiments and state-of the art land system models. Permafrost4Life is a collaboration between research institutions from Norway and Mongolia, emphasizing the full equality of the research partners.

Funding scheme:

KLIMAFORSK-Stort program klima