Earth Institute Research Projects

Collaborative Research: Climate, Human and Ecosystem Interactions in the face of a Rapidly Changing North Asian biome

Lead PI: Dr. Nicole K. Davi , Laia Andreu Hayles

Unit Affiliation: Biology and Paleo Environment, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

September 2017 - August 2022
Asia ; Siberia ; Mongolia
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: In many parts of the globe environmental change and socio-economic conditions are increasingly tied together producing regional vulnerabilities that are still poorly understood and under-anticipated. Northern Asia, and particularly the subarctic zone of southern Siberia and northern Mongolia, has experienced rates of warming that are so far unprecedented elsewhere and provide an opportunity for the early study of human and environmental impacts due to global warming. A Mongolian-American collaborative research team will investigate the three way relationship between pastoral nomadic food production, environmental robustness, and climate fluctuation in order to better understand principles of human organization that serve to sustainably manage this complex relationship. Pastoral nomadism is an indigenous Arctic and subarctic subsistence economy that sustains numerous populations from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean and is known for its flexibility, stewardship of rangelands, and productive success within small-scale societies as well as nation states. By comparing early historical pastoralism and its socio-economic organization to environmental conditions and climate variation over more than a millennium, this project provides a deep-time perspective on sustainable and unsustainable practices in use today under a changing climate regime. This research aims to promote successful adaptation to environmental change on behalf of a broad spectrum of communities and lifeways and across national borders. The researchers believe that this research will help to sustain systems of indigenous food production throughout northernmost Asia with emphasis placed on maintaining local environments. The results have broader applicability to other pastoral nomadic regions of the world, most notably the African continent in terms of environmental and land use policy making. The project strengthens interdisciplinary collaboration and provides hands-on training for U.S. and Mongolian junior scholars, undergraduates, and graduate students in climatic bio-social science and cross-disciplinary research integration.

The project framework relies on a combination of high-resolution historical and environmental data that will be analyzed as time series and compared across two time scales: a short sequence of 25 years (1990 to present) and a long-sequence of 1300 years (700 AD to present). Data from the past quarter-century will comprise 1) trends in forest productivity as revealed by the tree-ring record; 2) trends in steppe productivity; 3) ethnohistorical and ethnographic evidence of human use of these ecosystems in relation to recent socio-economic change; and 4) livestock population and mortality data. Contemporary patterns will be contextualized by more than one thousand years of climatic and socio-cultural observations. These will be compiled from tree-ring analysis, lake core and palynological studies, and from archaeological research, all of which provide alternate environmental indicators as well as a record of the relationship between nomadic pastoralists and the northern forest ecosystem. By juxtaposing the trajectory of the forest-steppe and human communities over time, this research develops new approaches and insight to the linkages between ecosystems, climate, human culture, and policy that promote long-term sustainability. Data and results will be widely disseminated through publications and public outreach but principally will be shared with and developed for the indigenous communities that rely on pastoralism across the Asian Arctic and subarctic biomes.