Melting Ice Patches in Mongolia Threaten Reindeer, Archaeological Treasures

An ice patch in Mongolia. (William Taylor)

(CN) – Ice in northern Mongolia that has never melted in living memory has begun to thaw over the last several years and local reindeer populations – and the people who herd them – are feeling the consequences.

According to a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, certain areas across Mongolia’s northern lands are home to “munkh mus” or “eternal ice”, which is ice that historically does not thaw or melt even during the summer.  The constant nature of these icy areas has led reindeer herders like the Tsaatan people to rely on the ice for cooling overheated reindeer and to keep people and animals alike well-watered and cared for.

Researchers report, however, that as temperatures around the world have risen over the years and climate change ravages climates and environments, the eternal ice of Mongolia is now doing the one thing its name suggests is not possible: melting.

William Taylor of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and lead author of the study, and a team of researchers examined firsthand the regions and people being affected by this ice thaw, and have determined that the melting poses real dangers to local people, their livelihood and Mongolia’s own archeological record.

“This study shows us that climate change is urgently threating a way of life – domestic reindeer herding – as well as the rare artifacts and archaeological clues that we may have to understand Mongolia’s past,” Taylor said in an email.

Up close and personal with a reindeer in Mongolia. (Julia Clark)

Most notably, researchers say the shrinkage of Mongolian ice raises several key problems for reindeer and their herders, with one of the most significant being that as the ice disappears, a reindeer’s ability to manage its own internal temperatures takes a drastic hit.

“The absence of ice patches curtails the animals’ ability to thermoregulate, and their inability to escape insects may also increase exposure to parasites and vector-borne disease,” the study states.

Another danger associated with the disappearance of Mongolian ancient ice is the possibility of freshwater shortages. With Tsaatan reindeer herders relying heavily on the availability of water for the health of their herds, the recent melting has them worried.

“While there is still enough drinking water for humans and stock today, informants complained of drying pastures. If the melting of ancient ice, and the trend toward increasingly drier conditions continues, it may have a disastrous impact on reindeer, as they are especially sensitive to water availability,” according to the study.

Researchers also warn that Mongolian ice melt threatens more than just local reindeer. The study also points to numerous historical artifacts and objects frozen and maintained within the ice for years, artifacts that are now being displaced by the thawing ice and exposed to the harshness of the elements.

“These accumulations of ice and snow freeze objects that have fallen inside, preserving them to create one of our only archaeological datasets from this key region,” Taylor said with the release of the study.

While these newly discovered objects, like a willow fishing pole, can help to fill in crucial historical gaps regarding the physical history of the region, the melting ice also poses a threat to the preservation of Mongolia’s archeological record. With the ice protecting many of Mongolia’s artifacts, experts warn of the consequences such artifacts could face once that protection is no longer present.

Scientists say that once these materials are no preserved by ice, it is only a matter of time before they are lost to environmental degradation and with them, irreplaceable historical knowledge.

While the researchers acknowledge more clarification about the melting of the eternal ice and its implications could be gained through further research, such pursuits should not detract from the seriousness consequences of the problem immediately at hand.

“While future research may yield important cultural and paleoenvironmental material relevant to understanding the deeper chronology of reindeer domestication and pastoral use of high altitudes, ice patches and the material they contain are urgently threatened by warming temperature and climate change,” the study concludes.

Horses on a former ice patch in Mongolia. (William Taylor)
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