Goats and Soda: NPR
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ULAANBATAR, Mongolia – In March, as Mongolian shepherd Batsaikhan Enkhee tended his sheep, the sky suddenly darkened. The wind picked up, filling his shoes and shirt with coarse, heavy sand. A huge sandstorm had engulfed the Mongolian grasslands.
“It was pitch black,” Batsaikhanm, 53, told NPR. “I thought I was going to die.”
The shepherd huddled with his sheep as airborne dirt blocked out the sun. His brother found him the next day, buried in the sand, and dug him up. He survived, but 200 of his sheep died in the storm, about a fifth of his flock.
The sheep were not the only victim. Nine Mongolian herders perished on the steppes in what was the worst sandstorm season in Mongolia and China in a decade.
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The sand cloud then made its way over the next day to Beijing, more than 600 miles away. There, the sky suddenly turned a garish yellow. The air quickly fills with plumes of coarse gravel, drenching cars and balconies a dusty brown.
Beijing has always been beset by spring gales bringing sand from the Gobi, a vast strip of desert and craggy rocks that stretches between China and Mongolia. Decades of reforestation efforts along China’s northern border have reduced the frequency of sandstorms.
Until this year.
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A combination of extreme weather, climate change and environmental degradation created the perfect storm – or rather a series of eight cross-border sandstorms in March, April and May that destroyed herds of animals, exacerbated respiratory problems and canceled flights to Mongolia and China. The video below shows the scale of this year’s storms.
The result was catastrophic in the Chinese and Mongolian regions bordering the Gobi. In northern China, tourists found themselves trapped by the strong wind. Air pollution levels have skyrocketed to more than 20 times the healthy limit. Southern Mongolia was particularly affected; successive sandstorms have killed an estimated 1.6 million head of cattle, on which many herders depend for their income.
“Even the rescue teams couldn’t even advance because it was so dark during the [March] storm,” said Jargalsaikhan Sonomdash, the governor of Airag county in southern Mongolia, where 3,600 animals died after being buried under piles of sand.
Mongolian climate experts say an unusually dry year for rainfall created huge amounts of loose sand. “Almost no snow fell last winter, and some provinces had no rain last summer,” said Dulamsuren Daskhuu, a senior researcher at the Mongolian Research Institute of Meteorology and Weather Monitoring. environment, a ministry.
The Gobi Desert is also expanding. Desertification is progressing in northern Mongolia at an average rate of 75 miles per year, according to the Dulamsuren Institute. Part of the reason is climate change.
According to the Mongolian Ministry of Environment, temperatures in Mongolia have increased by about 4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 70 years, about double the recorded global average rate of increase.
Pollution from widespread gold, coal and copper mining has also accelerated desertification. It stripped vegetation and caused lakes and streams to dry up.
Another major factor in promoting sandstorms is overgrazing. The number of Mongolian livestock has nearly tripled in the past 30 years, according to Mongolia’s national statistics office. The number of goats increased the fastest, from 5 million head to 27 million head. Mongolian goats produce around 40% of the world’s cashmere. They also eat twice as much grass as sheep, destroying pastures at an unsustainable rate.
“If no action is taken now, Mongolia will be completely deserted in 30 to 40 years,” says Dulamsuren. “There will be many more sandstorms in the future.”
However, not all sand comes from Mongolia. Satellite images show that the sandstorms that blanketed China later in the spring, in April and May, largely originated from northern Chinese provinces such as Ningxia, Gansu and Inner Mongolia. This winter, the average ground temperature there also remained 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal, says Beijing-based Greenpeace researcher Liu Junyan. This resulted in faster evaporation, less water retention and more dry sand.
“The northwest and northern regions of China still experience annual sandstorms as a natural phenomenon,” Liu said. “Just because people didn’t pay attention to storms doesn’t mean storms have ceased to exist.”
In March, the extra sand was then picked up by seasonal winds boosted by La Nina, a cyclical weather phenomenon where the Pacific Ocean cools and which can also lead to more hurricanes and less rainfall.
Since 1978, China has implemented a plan to combat sandstorms, planting around 66 billion trees along the country’s border with the Gobi Desert – a phalanx of vegetation dubbed “the Great Green Wall”. . It’s meant to anchor loose dirt and keep small sandstorms from picking up speed. But the force of this year’s storms was such that loose sand was blown hundreds of feet into the air, throwing it well above the line of trees meant to hold back such incursions.
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In the Chinese capital of Beijing, residents huddle indoors whenever the air outside becomes too dangerous to breathe due to sandstorms. But for those living closer to the Gobi, the increased rate of sandstorms is a matter of life and death.
Last March, as dust began to cloud the sky in Dornogovi province in southern Mongolia, shepherd Nyamsambuu Myadagmaa, 43, and several other herders led some of their sheep and goats to a barn to their safety.
But the sandstorm lasted 20 hours – the longest on record – and dumped so much sand on the barn that its roof collapsed, killing the animals inside. Animals left outside were literally buried alive.
“Many of us found our animals that were killed in the steppe because they were stuck in the sand and only their ears or heads were sticking out,” recalls Mydagmaa. The survivors had been blinded by the abrasive sand.
Amy Cheng contributed research from Beijing.