As part of my research, I spent time studying the lakes in eastern Mongolia. When I was last there, I was using a Soviet map made in the 1940s as a reference. When you look at the map, you see lakes spread out across the region, so in my imagination, I saw the Finger Lakes. I also knew that a paper published a couple of years ago claimed that lakes in northeastern China and eastern Mongolia have been drying out at an alarming rate, and that over the past 30 years about 30% of lakes have evaporated. When I started driving around the area, I was shocked to see that many of the lakes had disappeared and instead of water, the only thing glittering in the sun was a thin layer of salt.
Lake Khukh is the biggest lake in the region and the lowest point in Mongolia. One afternoon, we drove along this dirt road to get to another point north of our location. We didn’t reach the lake because it had disappeared from that area so we just drove on the dried lake beds. What made this experience even more disturbing was that in the center of the dried area, were three Mongolian camels standing there, eating. Now just to clarify, this is the heart of where Genghis Khan roamed, the iconic land of the horses. Camels live in the Gobi Desert some 500-1000 km south of where we were. Why were they here?
After talking with the locals, I found out that ground water has been decreasing, forcing them to move to other places or dig wells 4 times deeper than before. The camels seem to be part of this transition. The water is becoming scarce and camels are better adapted to these conditions. So the homeland of the famous Mongol horses is drying out forcing the horses and their nomad horseman to change. Mongolia is in the middle of an area that is warming about twice as fast as the global average. If what we are seeing is a real trend, this will have dire consequences for northern China and eastern Mongolia and will affect a great number of people.
Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory