The River Wolf and the Blue Pearl: Conserving Mongolia's Aquatic Ecosystems in an Age of Global Change
Cultural and religious values surrounding protection of water have long served to maintain Mongolia’s lakes and rivers in near-pristine condition. However, new threats are increasing human impacts on Mongolia’s fresh waters. Many of these new threats, including atmospheric deposition of pollution and climate change, originate far beyond Mongolia’s borders. Others, such as overgrazing and overfishing, are driven in large part by global economic forces. Over the past twelve years, a team of Mongolian and American scientists – the Mongolian-American Aquatic Ecology Research Initiative – has been studying changes to the ecology of northern Mongolian lakes and rivers. Our findings reflect an ecosystem whose processes remain largely intact, but which is already showing signs of strain from multiple interacting stressors. Lake Hovsgol, Mongolia’s largest freshwater lake and the 19th largest lake in the world by volume, is among the world’s most pristine and unique lakes. Despite its remoteness, protected status, and low human population density, Lake Hovsgol is threatened by the synergistic pressures of climate change, water pollution, overfishing, and development. Analysis of local weather station data reveals a 1.8°C increase in air temperature over the last half century, a rate of warming more than three times the global average, which contributes to the drying of many previously reliable streams and the loss of fish spawning habitat. Surveys for pelagic microplastics and shoreline macroplastics indicate that Lake Hovsgol is more polluted than many more developed and densely populated watersheds. Interviews with herders and park rangers and shoreline surveys for derelict fishing gear suggest that gillnet fishing, though illegal, is increasing in intensity. Analyses of long-term monitoring data suggest that fish populations, including those of globally endangered species, are in decline. These issues are likely to be exacerbated as access and tourism increase and Mongolia moves to develop its rivers for hydropower.
Host: Robert Arlinghaus