Image of the Day: Melting Ice
Image of the Day: Melting Ice

Image of the Day: Melting Ice

Warming temperatures threaten reindeer herding and the preservation of cultural artifacts in Mongolia.

Nov 21, 2019
Emily Makowski

ABOVE: Domestic reindeer saddled for riding outside a Tsaatan summer camp in Khuvsgul province, northern Mongolia
JULIA CLARK

For the first time in memory, “eternal ice” on the steppes of Mongolia is melting, affecting the lifestyle of the local Tsaatan people, according to a paper published November 20 in PLOS ONE. Researchers led by William Taylor, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder, interviewed eight families in Mengebulag, northern Mongolia, who said that many ice patches in the region had melted between 2016 and 2018 for the first time that they could collectively remember.

The ice, which typically accumulates in winter and does not melt completely, is a source of fresh water for the Tsaatan people. It is also important for the reindeer that they herd, which lie down on it to cool off in the summer.

The researchers also conducted an archaeological survey at melted ice patch sites, which uncovered tools made from branches that date to the 1960s, when reindeer herders first moved into the area. Because organic material quickly breaks down once it is no longer preserved in ice, the appearance of these tools suggests that there has been a more extreme ice thaw in recent years than in the past few decades.

“The area’s ancient ice appears to be rapidly melting due to changing climate and warming summer temperatures, putting both cultural heritage and traditional reindeer herding at extreme risk in the years to come,” the authors write in the paper.

Reindeer on a snow patch in Mengebulag (left) and heat-stressed reindeer laying on dirt in Zuun Taiga (right)
TAYLOR ET AL., 2019

W. Taylor et al., “Investigating reindeer pastoralism and exploitation of high mountain zones in northern Mongolia through ice patch archaeology,” PLOS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0224741, 2019.

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com