Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Mongolia Inside & Out 106: Weather and seasons

Seasons are culturally-specific concepts used to understand ecological and meteorological phenomena through categorization.  While the four-season model applies to much of the world, there are numerous exceptions both culturally and climatically.  Mongolia generally adheres to the four-season breakdown of a calendar year; however, the timing, significance, and associations of each season differ in important ways from those in the English-speaking Western world.

Throughout the calendar year Mongolia is blessed with an unusually high proportion of sunny days (clocking it at over 250 per year on average).  Mongolia's relatively high altitude and numerous clear days avowedly bear some connection to its popular characterization as the Land of Blue Sky, the Land of Eternal Blue Heaven, or some other poetic variation.  Photographs do not do justice to the vast expanse of vivid blue, often dotted by impossibly-white cloud confections, that towers over the rolling steppe, the dark hills, and the hazy desert-steppe scrubland.

Brilliant summer sky over the statue of Sukhbaatar in Sukhbaatar Square, downtown Ulaanbaatar

Dawn on the steppe

Late afternoon in the sand dunes of Elsen Tasarkhai

However, it's not all blue skies.  Mongolian storms can be sudden and apocalyptic.  Global climate change coupled with desertification in Mongolia has led to a recent increase in dangerous flooding, especially in the southern parts of the country.

Thunder storm over the eastern Gobi desert

Lightning strikes during a flash flood in the Middle Gobi desert

It's difficult to discuss Mongolian weather in general, as it is so much a function of the given season.  On the one hand, a single day in any season may bring some combination of gorgeous blue skies, hail, and high winds.  Snow can fall even in the middle of summer and the sun's rays are as piercing in January as in July. While Mongolia is overall an arid place of extreme temperatures, let's take a look at each of the four seasons to develop a richer picture of what might be in store for you during your next visit.


Autumn is arguably Mongolia's finest season.  In Central Mongolia, nomadic families move to their fall encampment or namarjaa (намаржаа) starting around August 15th, which marks the beginning of autumn.  Late August and September are ideal times to enjoy the countryside, where the weather is cool but not yet arctic and a number of inconveniences (insects, tourists) drop off sharply.  Autumn is the season when most indigenous berries and nuts ripen in Central Mongolia, including vitamin C-rich seabuckthorn (чацаргана), and when airag (fermented mare's milk) is at its tastiest and most potent.

Autumn in the khangai
Cranes, swans, and other migratory birds pass through Mongolia in pairs and flocks during autumn.  Most notable is the massive swan migration to Ganga Lake in Sukhbaatar province, eastern Mongolia.  Most resorts and ger camps in the countryside close for the season in late September or early October.  Traveling later in the year than that can be a bit more challenging as a result.

September along the Orkhon River


Mongolian winter is no joke.  Ulaanbaatar is the world's coldest capital and in locations across the country winter temperatures plummet to -40C (even colder in the north).  On New Year's Day 2016, it dipped to -35C in the capital!

Mongolia regularly falls victim to the zud, commonly translated to "winter disaster", which kills off numerous livestock when it hits.  Zud is a weather phenomenon but is measured almost entirely in its effect on herd animals.  There are several types of zud but all are devastating, including:

Gan zud ("drought winter disaster") is said to be the result of ice covering up all the pastureland.  I also suspect it is related to the difficulty of getting at fresh water through thick ice, which is especially hard on бог мал (bog mal, the class of livestock made up of sheep and goats).

Khar zud ("black winter disaster") occurs when all the fodder has died as a result of little precipitation and harsh winds that turn the pastures black.

Tsagaan zud ("white winter disaster"), as one might guess, is the result of too much snow: the animals cannot get through to the vegetation underneath and are sometimes themselves buried under deep drifts.

Tuuvar zud ("trampled winter disaster") is mostly due to problems with herd and pasture management, as too many animals overuse and trample the pastureland to the extent that little or no food is left.

In the 21st century several zud have been largely responsible for driving a huge influx of herding families from the countryside into Ulaanbaatar after the zud decimated their livelihoods.  Many are of the opinion that a zud will strike this winter, although to my knowledge one has not yet been declared (the Mongolian government would declare a state of emergency in the event of a zud).

Mongolian winter has a special period called yesun yes (pronounced "YOU-sun YOUSS).  Yesun yesthe nine-nine (81) coldest days of the year, begins on December 22nd. The 81 days are divided into three major sections - threes-of-nine - and each three-of-nine is subdivided into a nine-day period (1st nine through 9th nine). Each nine-day period has a different indicator, as you can see here: 
Yesun yes or nine nines infographic courtesy of gogo.mn

Here's my translation:

Infant or Baby three-of-nine
12/22 - 12/30: home-made alcohol (nermel, or Mongolian milk-based moonshine) will freeze
12/31 - 1/08: vodka or highly-distilled alcohol will freeze
1/09 - 1/17: the horns of 3-year-old cattle will freeze and snap off
Youth or Young three-of-nine
1/18 - 1/26: the horns of 4-year-old cattle will freeze and snap off
1/27 - 2/04: cooked rice won't freeze
2/05 - 2/13: roads made by tire tracks will appear
Old or Elder three-of-nine
2/14 - 2/22: brown patches will appear on hilltops
2/23 - 3/02: mud puddles will appear
3/03 - 3/12: "normal" warmth returns

This post comes during the absolute coldest period of the nine nines: the sixth nine, when the horns of 4-year-old cattle freeze and snap off.  The week's weather forecast for Ulaanbaatar predicts a low of -40C on Friday, the lowest yet this winter.  

In some ways, yesun yes is not strictly about winter.  This is because many Mongolians reckon the end of winter and the beginning of spring is heralded by tsagaan sar (a holiday that I previously covered here).  Case in point: 2016 tsagaan sar will fall at the end of "middle" esun es (February 8th - 10th). 

Another phenomenon that is not only confined to winter is Ulaanbaatar's air quality problem.  Beijing's air pollution has been making headlines over the last few weeks.  But a comparison of real-time air pollution (PM2.5 converted to AQI) monitoring in Beijing vs. Ulaanbaatar, it's unfortunately easy to see that Ulaanbaatar has the dubious distinction of breaking the red alert records of China's capital since monitoring has begun.  From the US Embassy in Beijing's air pollution page: "The U.S. EPA has developed a formula to convert PM 2.5 readings into an air quality index (AQI) value that can help inform health-related decisions. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality".  

I cannot state absolutely that Ulaanbaatar uses the same formula as the US EPA, the Ulaanbaatar air quality monitoring page does use AQI and a breakdown of health effects for each AQI level.  According to Ulaanbaatar's system, 401-500 AQI is High and poses "visible negative effects for general population's health".  Compare that to actual AQI reading form this winter and realize that it's pretty much hazardous all the time.  For example, around Christmas time one of the city's monitoring stations reported PM2.5 levels around 2,000 and, in early January, at least one day saw a reading of over 2,500 in the city.  

Going outside without a pollution mask during winter in Ulaanbaatar 

Anyone who will be in Ulaanbaatar between mid-October and mid- or late March will need to be prepared for the terrible air quality in the city.  While air pollution is not an issue elsewhere in the country, the circumstances in Ulaanbaatar for almost half the calendar year are challenging at best, lethal at worst; the World Health Organization has ranked Ulaanbaatar as the second most polluted city in the world due to this seasonal air pollution.  One in 10 deaths in the capital are due to the sky-rocketing levels of particulate matter in the air, despite the fact that the toxic pollution levels only occur in the cold months.  The rampant burning of coal has led to poor maternal health, birth defects, miscarriage, asthma, lung cancer, and a host of other diseases.  Sadly, most residents of Ulaanbaatar do not wear effective pollution masks and few have any effective methods of combating the omnipresent poison in the air.

Most of the air pollution is due to burning low-quality coal in the ger districts that ring the city center, as the cold weather forces folks to stay warm by any means possible.  Since Ulaanbaatar sits in a kind of basin formed by hills and low mountains around the Tuul River, the smoke and smog hang over the whole city without relief.  Worse still, just because the smoke and smog seem less visible on some winter days doesn't mean that the air quality is acceptable; the sky is only relatively less toxic.  Many a night and even some days in wintertime UB are like walking through a tire fire.

Anecdotally, this is my third winter in Ulaanbaatar and I feel a noticeable turn for the worse; I can't back this up with numbers, as I don't have access to air quality data from 2014 and 2013, but some things really stand out.  A number of friends have commented that their hair is falling out, I and a number of friends have reported high levels of pervasive general fatigue, the number of smokey days seems to have jumped (especially days of thick smoke that obscure visibility even during the warmest hours), and I've been having more headaches this winter than previous winters.

Moving onto a happier note, the rest of Mongolia in winter can be stunning:

January in Terelj National Park

Best way to see Mongolia in winter: racing along a frozen river in a dog sled!

The deep freeze of Mongolian winter turns lakes and rivers into roads for more than dog sleds.

A one-horse open sleigh - just like the Christmas carol!

The end of winter and beginning of spring are marked by Tsagaan Sar (lit. "white moon" or "white month"), the lunar new year.  The dates obviously change each year but see my 2014 post on the holiday for more details.  Tsagaan Sar usually falls in February and thus coincides with the beginning of lambing (khuraglakh / хургалах) and kidding (ishiglekh / ишиглэх) season.


March in Central Mongolia: not exactly the gentle springtime one might expect...

Contrary to a Westerner's expectations, spring is considered Mongolia's worst season.  Most North Americans associate spring with blooming flowers and singing birds.  Springtime is thus synonymous with good times; not so in Mongolia.  Havryn syndrom - spring syndrome or spring sickness - strikes at the individual and collective levels.  Spring syndrome is blamed for violent passions, fatigue, and a variety of health problems in Mongolia: spring is the season of intense puppy love, riots, and political protests.  While I personally suffer quite a bit during winter, it is primarily due to the air pollution; the cold is harsh but manageable.  On the other hand, I've gone through two bouts of 'spring syndrome' that left me struggling with lethargy and moody spirits.

A newborn calf looks on as its mother eats the afterbirth in Ar Janchivlan, Tuv province.  We happened upon this little scene just shortly after the calf's debut into this world early last May.

The received wisdom is that the intense weather fluctuations that characterize Mongolian springtime generate such problems.  A Mongolian spring day can easily start with a sunny warm morning, followed by gale-force windstorms sweeping dust, grit, and sand into every nook and cranny, topped off by mixed hail and rain that turns to snow in the evening.  Spring is traditionally the hardest season for herders and their flocks to endure.  Animals coming out of a Mongolian winter are at their leanest, their least healthy, and yet spring is the season when sheep and goats (February-March), cattle (usually March-April, but can be as early as the end of February and as late as early May), camels (mid-March to the beginning of May), and horses (April-May) give birth.  Scarcity of food, weakened physical state, and the pressures of lambing, kidding, calfing (тугалах / tugalakh), camel foaling (ботголох / botoglokh) and foaling (унагалах / unaglakh) make spring a season of struggle.


Of course summer is the season in Mongolia that I know best.  For me summer is the time for adventure in Mongolia: archaeological excavations, field expeditions, and jaunts into the splendor of rural Mongolia hold almost every charm that nature can provide.  One has only to look over past blog posts for positive proof of that!  As of writing I've spent all or parts of nine summers in Mongolia, making me a truly fortunate person.

The view from 2005...

...is just as spectacular as the view from 2015

A visitor to Mongolia should respect the overpowering heat of summer just as much as the harsh cold of winter.  On several different occasions I've had sunstroke during a Mongolian summer and have seen some truly spectacular sunburns on the ill-prepared.  The high altitude creates an intensity of sunlight that is hard to convey with mere words.  Mongolians Mongolia's hottest temperatures occur in summer, reaching over 90F in UB and up to 100F in the South Gobi during the height of the season.  Oddly, the heaviest rains also occur during summer, usually in June and July, although Mongolia receives very little annual precipitation overall.  Summer is the height of tourist season, which is often centered around Naadam, the annual summer festival about which I've written several times.

Summer is undoubtedly the best time for Mongolia's glorious, short-lived wildflowers.  I have never seen such a riotous, stunning array of purples as among the wildflowers of the khangai.

A carpet of brilliant flowers in the hills of Khentii province

Last but certainly not least: the long, lingering sunset of a Mongolian summer has no equal.

Southern Bulgan province in the afterglow of the setting sun

Sunset over the temple roofs at Erdene Zuu monastery

Spectacular sunset in the khangai region

Each of Mongolia's seasons has its own joys, challenges, and beauties.  Contrary to appearances, Mongolia's environment is fragile, full of rare flora and fauna as well as delicate ecological balances.  Unfortunately, global climate change and desertification may be changing the shape of the seasons and the rhythms of the weather, upsetting the traditional knowledge that generations of herders have accumulated in order to thrive in this lovely, harsh country.  The threats come from changes in weather (and other sources), rather than the longstanding extremes that characterize Mongolia's seasons.  Can Mongolia weather the coming storms?

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