MODERN MONGOLIA AND THE ANCIENT ARCTIC: A RESEARCH INITIATIVE
YOUNG, STEVEN B. . The Center for Northern Studies.
The Hovsgal region on Northern Mongolia lies at a Latitude of 48 to 50 degrees, yet its annual temperature regime is comparable to that of Nome or Kotzebue, Alaska. This is partly due to elevation, as the valley floors are at about 1500 meters, but the overall climate is much colder than that of areas of comparable elevation and latitude in,for example, western Canada. The precipitation regime in Mongolia is radically different in timing, if not in overall amount, from that of any modern Arctic area. Most of the Mongolian precipitation falls as rain during the summer months, and there is typically no significant snow cover throughout the intensely cold winters.
Although northern Mongolia is underlain by continuous permafrost, the aspect of the vegetation is radically different than that of Arctic areas. Moist, north-facing hillsides are heavily forested, and the drier and more exposed situations support steppe. This steppe can withstand heavy grazing by large quantities of animals, including sheep, goats, cattle, yaks, horses, and camels. Nonetheless, many of the steppe plant species, particularly at higher elevations and in enclosed valleys, are similar or identical to those of the present Alaskan forest tundra and tundra. It seems likely that the large numbers of grazing animals can exist because a) the combination of well-drained soils and heavy rainfall during the summer make for high productivity of fodder, and b) this fodder is available throughout the winter because of low snowfall. This raises the possibility that northern Mongolia might be at least a partial analogue for ancient Beringia. There, a cold, highly continental climate seemed to support a vegetation that could, in turn, allow large numbers of large herbivores to survive and prosper.
Another interesting feature of the Mongolian vegetation is that, at higher elevations, it takes on the aspect of a wet sedge meadow, again with many typically arctic species. This appears to be much less productive, in terms of its ability to support large herbivores, although this may be more a function of winter snow cover than actual productivity. We suggest that the vegetation of this moist, cloudy upland might be comparable to the apparently birch-dominated situation that apparently superseded the earlier land bridge vegetation of Beringia in the latest Pleistocene.
The Center for Northern Studies is currently working with the Smithsonian to develop a long-term research project in the Hovsgal region. This would involve research on the questions mentioned above in the following fashion. Taxonomic studies would be done on many of the important plant species, including molecular genetic studies, to determine how the plant populations relate to those of the true Arctic. Insect collections would be made and compared with the known insect faunas of ancient Beringia. We will also search for various kinds of deposits that will enable us to understand the changing Mongolian environment since (we hope) the late Pleistocene. Finally, the Smithsonian will be involved in major efforts to investigate the archaeological resources of the regions and preserve some of the more outstanding sites.
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