Mongolia is high, cold, and dry with large expanses of deserts and semi-deserts. It has an extreme continental climate with sharp seasonal fluctuations and variation, little precipitation, long, cold winters and short summers, during which most precipitation falls. Because Mongolia is situated so far from any sea and has a relatively high elevation, the weather there is predominately dry, and characterized by great extremes of hot and cold on a daily and yearly basis. It can be as cold as Siberia in the winter and as hot as the Sahara in the Gobi in the summer. In the deserts daytime and nighttime differences of 50 degrees C (90 degrees F) have been recorded. It is also very windy and often sunny with beautiful blue skies and great stars on the clear, cold nights. In the steppes and deserts winds of 50mph are not uncommon. Most places have at least 250 sunny days a year.

Mongolia stretches over a very large area and there is great deal of variation from north to south. The winters in the northern areas are particularly harsh and long, with more snow. Ulaan Baatar, which is situated in the north, has the distinction of being the world’s coldest capital. It is colder than Moscow or Helsinki. The winters in the southern areas are shorter and a little milder but still cold. Summers range from brisk in the north to hot in the south. The average temperature nationwide is around 25 degrees C.

Mongolia is usually at the center of a region of high atmospheric pressure. Precipitation is highest in the north, which averages 20 to 35 centimeters per year, and lowest in the south, which receives 10 to 20 centimeters. The extreme south is the Gobi, some regions of which receive no precipitation at all in most years. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 ]

During the harsh winters, the average low temperature in some places in northern Mongolia is -28 degrees C (-18 degrees F). Siberian winds can send the temperature plummeting to -45 degrees C (-50 degrees F) and snow covers much of country. In Ulaan Baatar, the high temperatures are usually well below freezing. The winters are so cold that people often all sleep together on a kang (a huge bed over an oven). The snows tends to fall in squalls and flurries rather than storms although severe blizzards do occur from time to time. The snow on the ground tends to be icy and crusty. In the mountains snow can accumulate to great depths. Steady, strong winds blow across the steppes. In some places the winds are so strong and the blizzards are so blinding that ropes are set up between building so people will not lose their way.

There is a short rainy season, with brief intermittent showers, that falls sometime between mid-July and September. Snow often shows up in September. Often times the rain is spotty. Huge thunder heads will blow across the steppe and desert, drooping heavy rains in one place and completely bypassing another. In the summer be prepared for the swarms of sweat-sucking flies in the Gobi and clouds of mosquitos in northern Mongolia. Weather of Mongolia

Mongolia's weather is characterized by extreme variability and short-term unpredictability in the summer, and the multiyear averages conceal wide variations in precipitation, dates of frosts, and occurrences of blizzards and spring dust storms. Such weather poses severe challenges to human and livestock survival.

The temperatures difference between north and south are most pronounced in the summers. Ulaan Baatar and the Siberian plateau can be chilly even in July and August, with highs often only in the 10s C (50s and 60s F). In the Gobi desert, however, the summers are very hot. Temperatures often rises above 38 degrees C (100 degrees F) or even 43 degrees C (110 degrees F) during the afternoon and then sometimes drop into the single digits C (40s F) at night. Nights across Mongolia tend to be cool or cold. Spring and autumn are cool as well. ▪ Mongolia receives very little rain. and would receive even less if it wasn't for the mountains which bring precipitation to themselves and to the areas on their windward sides. Most of Mongolia receives between 25 and 55 centimeters (10 and 20 inches) of rain a year. Some mountains and foothills areas receive 40 to 160 centimeters of precipitation a year. The heaviest precipitation is in the mountains and on their windward sides and the mountains in northwest Mongolia. In the desert areas many places receive less than 10 centimeters a year.

Average temperatures over most of the country are below freezing from November through March and are about freezing in April and October. January and February averages of -20 degrees C are common, with winter nights of -40 degrees C occurring most years. Summer extremes reach as high as 38 degrees C in the southern Gobi region and 33 degrees C in Ulaanbaatar. More than half the country is covered by permafrost, which makes construction, road building, and mining difficult. All rivers and freshwater lakes freeze over in the winter, and smaller streams commonly freeze to the bottom. Ulaanbaatar lies at 1,351 meters above sea level in the valley of the Tuul Gol, a river. Located in the relatively well-watered north, it receives an annual average of 31 centimeters of precipitation, almost all of which falls in July and in August. Ulaanbaatar has an average annual temperature of -2.9 degrees C and a frost-free period extending on the average from mid-June to late August. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]

Official statistics list less than 1 percent of the country as arable, 8 to 10 percent as forest, and the rest as pasture or desert. Grain, mostly wheat, is grown in the valleys of the Selenge river system in the north, but yields fluctuate widely and unpredictably as a result of the amount and the timing of rain and the dates of killing frosts. Although winters are generally cold and clear, there are occasional blizzards that do not deposit much snow but cover the grasses with enough snow and ice to make grazing impossible, killing off tens of thousands of sheep or cattle. Such losses of livestock, which are an inevitable and, in a sense, normal consequence of the climate, have made it difficult for planned increases in livestock numbers to be achieved. *

Wind Storms in Mongolia

Winds blow across Mongolia throughout the year. In the steppes and deserts, winds of 60mph are not uncommon. They produce severe snowstorms in the winter and in the fall and are particularly intense in the spring, when periodic fierce sand storms strike. Sometimes dust storms blow in that blot out the sky with fine dust particles that creep inside buildings despite efforts to keep them out and force airports and bazaars to close down. Some of the strong winds result from the sun heating up the air and making it rise. The wind is cooler air sweeping in to take its place. The great sandstorms are caused by turbulence caused by the collision of massive fronts of cold Siberian wind and hot winds coming up from Southeast Asia.

Wind storms blow the soil right off the land and make agriculture nearly impossible. Grass are the only thing that will grow and keep the soil anchored to the ground. In the winter, powerful gusts of bai mao feng -- literally "white hairy wind" -- can blind drivers and knock their cars off roads. In the spring "a grey brown wall of Gobi desert grit towers in air and blows towards Beijing at towards us at 50 miles an hour. The storms sometimes last for days. If caught in such a storm the best thing to do is take shelter in a vehicle or ger. Backpacker tents often fly into the sky.One good thing about them though is they can keep away the swarms of sweat-sucking flies in the Gobi and clouds of mosquitos in northern Mongolia.

The charismatic explorer, Roy Chapman Andrews, who is said have been a model for Indian Jones and led one of the greatest dinosaur hunts of all time in the early 1920s in the Gobi Desert, said the greatest hardships of his expedition were caused by fierce sandstorm that swept down from Siberia and sometimes blew gravel and sand into the air for days. Describing one such storm, Andrews wrote: "I suddenly became conscious that the air was vibrating with a continuous even roar, which was getting louder each second...In the gray light of dawn we could see an ominous bronze cloud hanging over the rim of the basin." Ten minutes later the storm struck "like a burst of a high-explosive shell. Even with my head covered I heard the rip and crash of falling tents. As our tents swept away, [Granger] had leapt to save the six tiny fossil Cretaceous mammal skulls." The wind tore the clothes off Andrews back and the wind lashed his skin until it bled. "Had our cars not been facing the wind," Andrews wrote, "they would have certainly been overturned." Even so the windshields were so sandblasted they had to be knocked out before the expedition could continue.

Mongolians reportedly love to stand naked in raging sandstorm. They claim the abrasive sand is invigorated like jumping in water in a hole cut in the ice. The tradition purportedly dates by to the Genghis Khan era, when Mongol warriors believed they could achieve immortality by drinking the blood of the horses and taking a sandstorm bath.

Gobi Dust Storms

The Gobi region, Northern China, including Beijing, and western China are struck with fierce sand storms and dust storms in late winter and early spring. The winds generally blow from west to east and kick up tens of millions of tons of top soil each day. The storms are produced by atmospheric low pressure cells that develop over Mongolia and create windy conditions in the Taklamakan and Gobi deserts. The storms are worse when the climate is hot and dry. In 2003, the storms were less severe than usual. This was attributed mainly to more rain in the Gobi and the failure of atmospheric low pressure cells to develop over Mongolia.

Springtime weather in Asia produces intense wind storm events that can pass over the Gobi Desert along the northern China and Mongolia border and other parts of desert China. These winds are capable of generating huge yellow clouds of suspended dust which based on the direction of the prevailing wind can be sent out to sea. Advances in satellite imagery allow the tracking and documentation of these huge Asian aerosol clouds. [Source:]

The yellow dust kicked up these storms refers not so much to the color of the dust while it is in the air but more to the film of dust left on cars, windows and other surfaces by the winds. The air and skies are usually a kind of brownish gray. Sometimes the sand mixes with snow and causes yellow snow.

Dust and sand levels are exacerbated by drought and desertificaton. Drought robs the soil of moisture, making it easier for the soil to be picked up the wind. Drought in the winter is particularly damaging because it dries the soil before the big winds arrive in late winter and early spring. In recent years, the dust storms have been occurring earlier, with greater frequency, lasting longer, and carrying stronger winds and more dust. One study found severe storms have increased from five in the 1950s to eight in the 1960s, 13 in the 1970s, 14 in the 1980s and 23 in the 1990s. Desertification in western China and Mongolian steppes has made sandstorms worse in recent years. Global warming is blamed for producing milder and dryer winters that loosen the soils which are easily lifted by the spring winds.

Impact of Gobi Dust Storms on Humans

Beijing has always been violently invaded and attacked by air- borne sand and dust, so whenever a windstorm occurs sand and dust fill the sky. There are times when it continues for several days and the ground is then completely covered with a thick layer of sand. Under such weather conditions people have to remain indoors as much as possible, and if you risk going outdoors you have to take care not to be hit by the trees, the store signs, etc. that are being blown down by the wind, and moreover you have to wear a protective mask or veil. Since the sand can readily enter the eyes and mouth, the respiratory systems and eyes of many people are infected in this manner. In addition to the fact that sandstorms cause such inconvenience in people’s lives, they also influence agricultural production, transportation and shipping, and other industries, and cause serious economic damage thereby.

Storms with unusual ferocity have hit Beijing. Sand storms reduce visibility to less than one kilometer. The dust and sand in the air damages the lungs and irritates the eyes. Homeowners have to work to keep the dust out of their homes. Fierce sand storms, propelled by powerful winds, in Xinjiang have destroyed houses and cracked double-gazed windows. Not far from the Beijing villages are being gobbled up by moving sand dunes.

The storms become particularly dangerous when they move east and pick up industrial pollutants such as arsenic and dioxins and heavy metals such as copper, cadmium and lead when they pass over China’s heavily industrialized northeast and dumps these pollutants further west, sometimes in Korea and Japan, and even the U.S.

Damaging Gobi Dust and Sand Storms

Strong spring weather systems are capable of generating wind speeds of 60 mph which can last for days across the high steppe desert country of Mongolia and western China. Part of the reason these dust storms are so severe, is that the soil is so loose and fine. Dust and sand storms in the Yellow River valley and the Gobi desert are so strong that planes can't fly and transportation is brought to halt. Yurts get knocked over. People stay indoors and stuff rags under their doors to keep dust and sand from blowing in. People that go outside are forced to wear surgical masks to keep from choking on the yellow dust and sand. A storm in 1998 was blamed for 12 deaths, and the storms appear to be increasing in frequency. In China, storms with fine wind blown dust are called "dust floatings".

On his experience in Taklamakan desert in 1895, the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin wrote: “Crossing a dead-flat plain of yellow-grey dust—nothing but dust, so fine that it blew like powder at every breath of the wind, and so soft and deep that driving over it was like an adventure on a feather-bed. The wheels of their wagons were almost sucked into it, the horses labored endlessly; the men, walking alongside, saw their feet sink into the dust ankle-deep with every step. The tracks they left behind were nothing but lines of dimples in the dust. The dust got into everything, the men and horses and every wagon became plastered with greyish-yellow dust."

A dust storm in April 2006 dumped an estimated 330,000 tons of yellow sand on Beijing, making parts of the city look like a desert. The storm was especially damaging because the grains of sand from the Gobi Desert were larger than usual and winds were unusually strong. The storm turned the skies of Beijing brownish yellow; left a thick covering of sand on homes, streets and cars; filled hospitals with people with respiratory diseases; and prompted authorities to raise dust and pollution warnings to their highest level and advised people to either wear face masks or stay indoors. The same storm kicked up high winds across the Gobi Desert that created huge dust clouds, toppled houses, buried railroads and roads and killed one person. A train in a remote stretch of desert had it windows broken by sand-laden winds.

A warning for the storm issued for a large swath of China and Mongolia went: “We advise friends in these areas to reduce their outdoor activities as much as possible. When you go out, please take measures to protect against the sand such as wearing cotton clothes, masks and glasses to avoid the sand harming your eyes and respiratory system."

Human Activity and Gobi Dust Storms

A report by the Chinese Academy of Science has indicated that this sand comes from the degraded pastureland and dry land of the area around the deserts of Inner Mongolia. Records show that during the 17th century there were from 0.3 to 1.0 sandstorms in Inner Mongolia per year, but by 1990 the annual rate of occurrence had risen to 3.0 to 5.0 times per year. At the same time, the rate of occurrence of sandstorms in Beijing has also increased, and the number of violent sandstorms that occurred this spring in Beijing was more than three times the average for the same period in the 1990s. Some have called the sandstorm that occurred on April 10, 2000 the most serious such storm in 10 years. Other than natural factors like aridity being the cause creating such conditions, the fact that China’s ecological environment has suffered damage is also a major source of this calamity. [Source: October 2000 Report - Chinese Monthly /*\]

Owing to the development of agriculture, the area of land adversely affected by sand has gradually increased, and during the 1950s and 1960s the land affected by sand expanded on average by 1,600 square kilometers per year. By the 1990s, the area by which this land was expanding had reached 2,500 square kilometers per year. This kind of situation where the land is adversely affected by sand is particularly serious in many regions upwind from Beijing. Fengning City in Hebei Province and Duolun City in Inner Mongolia lie to the north of Beijing, and in the last 50 years the population of these two cities has grown by a factor of 2 to 3 times. In order to obtain the resources needed to sustain their livelihood, the inhabitants have engaged in excessive cultivation of the land, pasturage of animals and tree-cutting, with the result that vegetation and the topsoil have sustained damage, and the sand layer below the earth is now exposed on the ground and the ground is rapidly being subjected to the spread of sand. /*\

China has already noticed this problem, and has adopted remedial measures. Currently there have been measures taken in response such as the withdrawal of land from cultivation and pasturage and its return to forestland and grassland in regions like Hebei Province and Inner Mongolia. The other day the Chinese government announced that it would invest more than 600,000,000 renminbi [TN: Chinese currency, aka yuan] to control Beijing’s sandstorms in the coming decade. Only by decreasing the damage caused by man and restoring the natural environment will it be possible to hold in check effectively the sources of the sand and dust and to improve the problem fundamentally. /*\

Global Impact of Gobi Dust Storms

Yellow dust from the Gobi region and north-central China blows into Korea and Japan and sometimes makes its way across the Pacific to North America. So much of China's and Mongolia’s topsoil blows away that scientists at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii can detect the dust within a matter of days after the spring winds starts. One storm in 2001 "blanketed areas from Canada to Arizona with a layer of dust."

Wind blown dust originating from the arid deserts of Mongolia and China is a well-known springtime meteorological phenomenon throughout East Asia. In fact, "yellow sand" meteorological conditions are sufficiently common to have acquired local names: Huangsha in China, Whangsa in Korea, and Kosa in Japan. [Source:]

Suspended clouds of Asian dust can move across the Pacific in elevated layers (3-11 km agl) and can reach the U.S. in as little as 4-6 days. The dust clouds finally dissipate when the particles are removed from the atmosphere by dry and wet removal processes. Gravitational settling of large particles (>10 m m) occurs near the source within the first day of transport. Wet removal occurs sporadically throughout the 5-10 day lifetime of the remaining smaller size dust particles.

Recent studies have revealed that yellow sand is not entirely a bad thing and can be a good thing. It can neutralize acid rain, and has beneficial affect on the marine environment. Yellow sand contain highly-alkaline calcium carbonate, which neutralizes acid and absorbs acid-rain-producing sulfur dioxide.

Dust from large deserts that is transported in this manner can be a vital nutrient source for both the oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. When it falls over the sea it is consumed by plankton which in turn provide food for fish. The sand is also rich in phosphorus and iron which can help fertilize the soil. Iron in the minerals composing this desert can be be a vital nutrient in oceanic regions that are deficient in iron. Furthermore, research has shown that the canopy (top layers) of much of the Central and South America rain forest derives much of its nutrient supply from dust that is transported over the Atlantic from the Sahara Desert in northern Africa.

Gobi Dust Storms in Korea and Japan

Yellow sand from huge springtime storms in Gobi region often hit Korea and Japan in March or April. The chocking clouds---which are like gritty fast-moving fogs and can be seen as yellow blobs from weather satellites--- were particularly bad in 2000, 2001 and especially 2002. After a wicked dust storm hit Seoul in March 2002, schools were closed; clinics were filled with people with respiratory problems; drugs stores ran out of cough medicine and face masks; and nonsmokers felt like smokers.

The yellow sand causes respiratory problems in northern China and South Korea and tinges laundry yellow. During the storms the amount of particulate matter in the air can increase 30 times. One South Korean weather service employee told the New York Times, “There is no way for us to deter this. All we can do is try to forecast the yellow dust storms as early as possible, but with the current technology we can only detect it one day ahead of time at best.” A Korean research report described the fallout from 2001 "yellow dust" storm as containing ed 16 times more "metallic substances" than your ordinary dust storm, contributing to respiratory illnesses.

In Japan, the storms are more of a nuisance than a health hazard. During particularly bad ones, the air is gritty and gray and cars are covered by a yellow film and the percentage of faulty products produced by precision machinery factories increases, but people generally don't have respiratory problems.

Gobi Dust Reaches Arizona

Sometimes Gobi dust storms are so immense that they can complete a 5-7 day journey across the Pacific Ocean to impact North America. These dramatic pollution events can engulf the entire Great Basin of the western U.S. in a thick layer of haze that can reduced direct solar radiation, double the diffused radiation and have a dramatic impact on the visibility in th western United States. Visibility degradation from Asian dust cloud events can range from a whitish discoloration of the normally blue sky to a thick haze that reduces visibility to 30 miles or less. These dust clouds can contribute as much as 40 μg/m3 of fine particulate to existing background levels. [Source:]

Lee Dye of ABC News wrote: In April 2001, “Paul Ostapuk thought a band of dark air extending across the western horizon looked a bit odd as his plane descended into Page, Ariz...There had been no suggestion of an approaching storm in the weather report, so Ostapuk grew increasingly curious about the enormous cloud. "It was pretty dramatic," says Ostapuk, a meteorologist and air quality specialist. The cloud, which he saw for the first time at around 4:30 p.m. on April 12, appeared to undulate, and within a couple of hours had spread across the entire sky. [Source: Lee Dye, ABC News, April 26, 2001 ^^]

“The air was so thick with tiny particulates that it seemed as though the sun was setting prematurely, and astronomers at the Lowell Observatory in nearby Flagstaff would later report seeing rings around the sun, a clear indication that this was no ordinary cloud. "My first impression was that there had been a volcanic eruption," says Ostapuk, but a quick review of news reports and other resources ruled that out. ^^

“Ostapuk turned to a NASA Web site with rich data available from a satellite launched less than five years ago. The Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) provides continuous mapping of ozone and other aerosols, such as sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions, around the world. He then backtracked the cloud, checking where it had been on each previous day. And finally it hit him. It was clear that the dust he saw descending on Page had come from a massive storm so far away that it seems unthinkable it would have had such a dramatic impact in the small Arizona town. The storm had occurred in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia and China. ^^

“The dust had been carried to high altitude by winds so fierce that airports had to be closed, and then transported 7,000 miles across the Gulf of Alaska, down through British Columbia and over the vast expanse of open land in this country known as the Colorado Plateau. A high pressure system trapped it in the area, causing some of the particulates to drop down to the ground and turning the sky yellow. It had taken six days for the gunk to move from Mongolia to Arizona, and it came from what Chinese officials were already calling the worst sand storm of the spring season. Winds had swept across lands that had been laid bare by overgrazing, kicking up enough dust to reduce visibility to near zero and making even ground transportation nearly impossible.” In the U.S. the dark cloud eventually moved on, according to NOAA. By April 19, it had reached the East Coast, stretching from Hudson Bay to Northern Florida, and then it moved on out to sea.” ^^

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center said: ,"The particulates in the dust clouds that reduce visibility and cause respiratory problems have not beenmeasured in such high volume since Mt. St. Helens erupted, and even then, the particulates did not reach the ground as they are in this case." According to Discovery Channel Earth Alert,"So thick was the dust over Easter weekend that visitors to western U.S. national parks have reportedly been asking rangers where the "fire" is. Normally only smoke from major fires causes such haze."

Blizzards in Mongolia

Blizzards in Mongolia can dump a meter of snow and reduce visibility to one meter. A blizzard in 2001 killed 29 people in Inner Mongolia. Most lost their way in the white out. Some 300,000 head of livestock froze to death. The worst affected area was the Xilin Gol region. Families that didn’t suffer to badly lost only 15 cows and 10 sheep.

In early 2001, Mongolia was struck by a huge blizzard that produced gale-force winds and meter-deep snow. Herders brought their prized animals inside their gers to keep them warm through the freezing cold nights and awoke to find that the rest of their herds had frozen death. One herder told U.S. News and World Report, “The winter was so cold all the animals died at once.”

Some 7,400 herding families lost their entire herds, 13,000 lost half. Dead, frozen animals were piled up like cords of woods. Skeletons littered the deserts and steppes. Some herders were killed. Most of them lost their way in the whiteout, looking for their animals, and froze to death.

One family that lost 170 of its 200 animals told the Los Angeles Times, “For a family of seven, less than 40 animals is nothing. They’ll need five to 10 animals just to provide their food in the winter, and things will get worse.

Killer Mongolian Blizzard s in 2008

Some killer blizzards have occurred in late spring, Snowstorms in Mongolia in May 2008 killed at least 21 people and left 100 others missing. Associated Press reported: “The State Emergency Authority said that heavy snow and strong winds have hit three provinces in eastern Mongolia. It said most of the victims were herders who were frozen to death and that hundreds of livestock also died. The Emergency Authority said telephone poles and communication lines were also snapped.The death toll could rise as communications links are restored. [Source: Associated Press, May 27, 2008] + - ▪ According to the People’s Daily: “At least 21 people were frozen to death in a heavy snowstorm which swept through seven provinces in Mongolia since Monday, said the Mongolian General Authority for Emergency Management (GAEM). GAEM is still in search of 51 people who got lost in the snowstorm. In the eastern province of Suhbaatar, the wind speed had once reached 40 meters per second. The snowstorm has also caused damage to buildings and electronic infrastructure, according to the GAEM. Snowstorms usually occur in spring in Mongolia. [Source: People’s Daily, May 28, 2008]

Xinhua reported: “The death toll from a heavy snowstorm which swept through seven provinces in Mongolia rose to 29 said GAEM. Seven children were among the dead and another 26 people were still missing, the authority said. [Source: Xinhua, May 28, 2008]


The Mongolia word “dzud” (zud) refers to weather conditions that prevents animals from getting enough grass to eat. It usually refers to a cycle of summer droughts followed by an extraordinarily cold winter with heavy snow and ice. Animals, underfed from the drought, simply don’t have the strength to fight and endure spells of harsh cold and dig through ice and snow for grass.

The dzud causes great hardship for herders on the steppe, often killing off entire herds of animals. The drought in the summer leaves animals weak and skinny, plus causes shortages of hay needed to keep the animals going in the winter. The most difficult times are often in the following spring when the food supplies begin to run out. When the animals die in the winter, they are frozen in cold temperatures. The meat can be eaten later.

Dzuds tend to be localized events that affect some people seriously and don’t affect others. Cows are often the first to go followed by horses, sheep, camels and goats. One herder said, “The dzud—it happens sometimes. It’s survival. It’s our karma.”

Dzud of 1999-2000 and Other Nasty Dzuds

In the winters of 1999-2000 and 200-2001 there were two devastating dzuds in a row that wiped an estimated 20 percent of Mongolia’s livestock. There was a reasonably bad dzud in 2002-2003, followed by a mild winter in 2003-2004. Between 1944 and 1998 there were eight dzuds. Usually about 3 million animals die in dzud. A particularly nasty one in 1944 left 8 million animals dead. Describing the Great Dzud of 1944, one woman told the Los Angeles Times, ‘The dzud covered nearly all the world in the Year of the Monkey...Only one cow in the entire valley.” Some dzuds have been so destructive that even yaks froze to death.

A fierce winter and dzud in 1999-2000 was particularly devastating in the Gobi.. Cold temperatures, ice and lack of grass killed hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats. By the spring of 2000, more than 35 percent of the 2.1 million animals in Middle Gobi province had perished and less than one third of the expected 600,000 new animals were born.

More than 1.5 million animals died nationwide. The animals were already weak from an early winter, which began in September rather the usual November or December. The worst hit areas were Dundgov, Bayankhonher, Atkhangai and Vorkhangai. Relief was sought for a half million families. Damage from the snow was exacerbated by loss the loss of distribution channels, by which nomads sold their animals.

Impact of Dzuds

According to World Bank: “Dzud is the Mongolian term for a winter weather disaster in which deep snow, severe cold, or other conditions render forage unavailable or inaccessible and lead to high livestock mortality. Dzud is a regular occurrence in Mongolia, and plays an important role in regulating livestock populations. However, dzud, especially when combined with other environmental or socio-economic stresses and changes, can have a significant impact on household well-being as well as local and national economies. Mongolia has experienced documented changes in climate in the past 60 years, and extreme events such as dzud may potentially increase in frequency and magnitude with future atmospheric changes.” [Source: World Bank, November 6, 2012]

Dzuds have forced many herders into poverty. Some had to give up herding and move to the cities. This happened to many inexperienced herder who left the cities to take up herding. Among the worst hit were Mongolians that took p herding when the collectives were abolished in 1996. Some herders took their animals to other pastures and caused over grazing there.

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “The last serious zuds, three consecutive harsh winters between 1999 and 2002, sent thousands of destitute nomads streaming into the capital, Ulan Bator. A decade later, their tattered yurts still crowd bleak neighborhoods on the city’s fringe as the former herders struggle to fit into the modern world. The United Nations estimates that the current disaster may prompt as many as 20,000 herders to abandon their nomadic life and flee to the city. “A lot of the herders have no skills so they usually end up breaking the law and falling into poverty,” said Buyanbadrakh, the governor of a small administrative district, known as a soum” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010 <+>]

According to the World Bank: The 1999-2002 dzud was an important catalyst for a number of donor-led efforts to improve pasture and livestock management and risk preparedness using community-based approaches.” Aid was provided by the United Nations and about 80 different groups in 2000 and 2002. One relief worker told the Los Angeles Times, “Instead of being workers, the [herders] become beggars. Wiser people would say it is better to provide them with livestock than food, so they can make their own living.”

Some foreign aid groups have called the dzuds excuses to seek foreign aid and the loss of livestock was not necessarily a bad thing for the environment. They pointed to that fact that even though millions of animals have died in the dzuds the number of animals in Mongolia has increased from about 18 million in 1989 to about 30 million in 2005. That is not to say some relief should be offered after dzuds but rather that the relief should only be offered to herders directly affected by the dzuds not all herders.

Dzud of 2009-2010

Mongolia experienced a devastating dzud in 2009-2010 that killed 9.7 million of the country's livestock, according to the National Emergency Agency of Mongolia. According to the World Bank: In the winter of 2009-2010 Mongolia experienced the most severe dzud since the consecutive dzud winters of 1999-2002. In the 2009-2010 dzud, about 8.5 million livestock had died, approximately 20 percent of the country’s livestock population, affecting 769,000 people or 28 percent of Mongolia’s human population. According to the Red Cross, 220,000 herding households were affected of which 44,000 households lost all of their livestock and 164,000 lost more than half their herd. [Source: World Bank, November 6, 2012]

According to Save the Children: A sharp and sudden temperature drop since late December 2009 combined with continuous heavy snowfalls has led to the current emergency situation in Mongolia. Higher-than-normal animal death rates have been reported and many more are at risk before the spring arrives and the snow melts in April and May. Up to 90 percent of the country has been covered with snow at depths ranging from 20cm to 90cm, and 198 of Mongolia's 331 soums have been battered by this harsh weather. Temperatures in the most severely affected regions have consistently dropped to between -30 and -40 degrees. For example, in Uliastai the lowest temperatures dropped to below -30 degrees during 19 of the 28 days in February

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “Mongolia and its 800,000 herders are reeling from the worst winter that anyone can remember. According to United Nations relief officials, nearly eight million cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats and sheep died, about 17 percent of the country’s livestock. Even if the spring rains arrive soon, 500,000 more animals are expected to succumb in the coming weeks. “This is not only a catastrophe for the herders but for the entire Mongolian economy,” said Akbar Usmani, the resident representative for the United Nations Development Program. “We expect the ripple effects for months and years to come.”“ [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010 <+>]

Reporting from Mongolia in the middle of winter,Arshad Sayed of the World Bank wrote: “Mongolia is currently experiencing a white "dzud" – a multiple natural disaster consisting of a summer drought resulting in inadequate pasture and production of hay, followed by very heavy winter snow, winds and lower-than-normal temperatures. Dzuds occur when the winter conditions – particularity heavy snow cover – prevent livestock from accessing pasture or from receiving adequate hay and fodder. [Source: Arshad Sayed, World Bank, January 31, 2010 <>]

“Since early January, there has been heavy and continuous snowfall, blizzards and a sharp fall in daily temperatures – dropping below minus 40 degrees Celsius – in 19 out of Mongolia’s 21 aimags (provinces). This disaster has already caused the loss of approximately three percent of the country’s roughly 44 million livestock and many more losses are expected, given the feeble condition of many animals. Around 35 percent of Mongolia's work force is dependent on herding for a substantial part of their livelihoods and about 63 percent of rural household's assets are livestock; livestock herding accounts for about a third of employment in Mongolia. Food security is also worsening, poverty levels are likely to rise and these factors may cause an increase in rural-to-urban migration. Compounding the problem is the poor condition of many pastures as a result of last year’s drought and overgrazing. In addition heavy snowfall started earlier than usual in October 2009. <>

“Some herders have lost 50-70 percent of their livestock. While they are monitoring the situation closely, the emergency commission is yet to declare the situation a national disaster, because it appears that the losses so far are localized. Some areas are so thickly covered with snow that they are inaccessible by all types of vehicles, while other areas appear to be less affected and remain accessible. If severe cold weather persists and there is more heavy snowfall, this situation could very well become a national disaster.” <>

Areas Badly Hit by the Dzud of 2009-2010

Arshad Sayed of the World Bank wrote: ““We visited two of the hardest hit provinces in central west Mongolia, Arkhangai and Uvurkhangai – which have suffered 24 and 14 percent respectively of the national livestock losses... Herders were trying to cope with the dire situation in different ways. Some families had decided to make one of their "gers" into an animal shelter and huddle together in the other. Some were trying to burn dung to keep the shelter warm – with little effect. Some were in a state of shock. One woman almost broke down, saying she didn't know what she would do if the family's one remaining milk cow died.” [Source: Arshad Sayed, World Bank, January 31, 2010 <>]

“Seven casualties have been reported as a result of the bad weather and two herders froze to death looking for their animals. In the worst-affected areas, carcasses lay strewn around. In shelters, sheep are stuck together from the previous night, trying to rush out of the pen in hunger perhaps and even some horses have fallen. One family was very worried about the possibility of their only remaining horse dying; without their horse – still the main form of transportation for many rural families – how would they be able to get basic necessities? <>

“So far, the government's response at the national level has been swift. At the county and village levels, however, the response is complicated by the dispersed rural population, large distances and because some villages are completely cut off from county centers by snow. Getting medical supplies, fodder, hay and basic foodstuffs to the herders are the immediate challenges. Emerging shortages of fuel, fodder, hay and transportation vehicles are likely to worsen the situation. Providing medical services, particularly to pregnant women and children, is a continuing challenge. During spring, safely disposing of carcasses and preventing outbreaks of disease will take center stage.” <>

Springtime During the Dzud of 2009-2010: a Harvest of Carcasses

Reporting from South Hangay Province, Mongolia, Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “They call it the zud, a prolonged period of heavy snows and paralyzing cold that adds to the challenges of living on a treeless expanse nearly the size of Alaska. But this year’s zud followed a punishing summer drought that stunted the grass and left Munkhbat Lkhagvasuren’s herds emaciated and his family in debt after borrowing money for fodder. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010 <+>]

“As the snow piled waist high this winter and temperatures plunged to 40 below zero, Mr. Lkhagvasuren crammed two dozen of the weakest goats and sheep into his yurt. The unlucky ones, more than 1,000 animals, froze to death in a great heap outside his front door. “I tried everything but could not fight against nature,” he said tearfully in a recent interview, the stench of rotting flesh overpowering despite a devilish wind. “I am broken and lost.” <+>

“For the moment, the government is focused on clearing the millions of dead animals that litter the grasslands and are beginning to decompose now that spring has finally arrived. A work-for-cash program, financed with a $1.5 million grant from the United Nations, pays herders to gather the carcasses and bury them in pits. It is grim work, but those lucky enough to get a spot on the crews are happy for the income. <+>

“At best, the money will only delay a looming crisis among families who have run out of food and are saddled with bank loans they took on to buy emergency feed. Mr. Lkhagvasuren, 34, the herder who lost 1,000 animals, said he owed over $1,800, a huge sum given that the average Mongolian earns $3,200 a year. He said he lost most of his most prized animals — horses, cows and about 200 yaks — and that it would take at least a decade to replenish his herd of goats and sheep, about 100 of which survived. As he sat in his yurt drinking salty milk tea and smoking tobacco rolled in a strip of newsprint, a crew dragged off the carcasses and heaved them into rickety trucks. “I can’t bear to watch,” he said.” <+>

NGO Response to the Dzud of 2009-2010

Relief Web reported: “Fifteen of Mongolia’s 21 provinces - home to 769,106 people, or 28 per cent of the country’s population - were declared disaster zones, and another four were seriously affected. An overall lack of resources prompted the Mongolian Government to appeal for assistance from the international community (the United Nations’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), July 6, 2010) and, as a result, in February 2010 the United Nations CERF allocated $3.7 million to the humanitarian country team in Mongolia. (OCHA, 26 Feb 2010). [Source: Relief Web]

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) also allocated 100,000 Swiss Francs (CHF) from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund in January 2010, and launched an Emergency Appeal for CHF 1,062,295 on 29 March 2010 to assist 1,800 of the most severely affected herder families in Bayankhongor, Dundgobi, Khentii, Khovd, Sukhbaatar, Tuv, Umnugobi and Uvs provinces. By October 2010, this emergency appeal was successfully completed, with target funding fully covered. (IFRC, 28 Feb 2011). [Ibid]

Reporting on his fact-finding mission to dzud-hit aeas, Arshad Sayed of the World Bank wrote: “Traveling was difficult and our vehicles got stuck in the snow several times. Halfway, we had to leave our vehicle behind and join the Minister's convoy as our car could not make it through the heavy snow. Standing outside in these temperatures even for 10 minutes makes the body numb. It’s hard to feel your hands and toes. This makes us all wonder how the herders and their families cope when they are out herding – every day. [Source: Arshad Sayed, World Bank, January 31, 2010 <>]

“The emerging disaster highlights the medium-term need to put in place a more sustainable pasture and livestock management system. This is the focus of ongoing assistance from the World Bank and other external partners. The World Bank is now trying to identify and mobilize resources to help the Government of Mongolia address the emerging disaster. We have met partners, including the United Nations. From the Bank side, we are taking immediate action: 1) exploring opportunities to tap into the World Bank's global disaster response fund; 2) working within the Bank-financed Sustainable Livelihoods Program to provide support under the pasture risk management and community initiatives funds, components of the project; and 3) using the Index Based Livestock Insurance project which covers some 5,600 herders in the country, including in affected areas, to provide some relief to those insured. <>

“Our teams are also working closely with key decision makers and counterparts over the next weeks and months. The aim is to support an appropriate response to short-term needs and continue to deepen medium-term initiatives that reduce herder vulnerability. This can be achieved by improving pasture management and winter preparedness, the transfer and mitigation of risks from a dzud and strengthening the post-disaster response system.” <>

Dzud of 2009-2010 Focuses Attention on Overgrazing and Too Many Animals

Andrew Jacobs, wrote in the New York Times, “Buyanbadrakh, the governor of a small administrative district, known as a soum, said 70 percent of the livestock in his soum, Zuunbayan-ulaan, were wiped out this year with at least 2,800 families losing their entire herds. With so many desperate nomads selling off their remaining animals to survive, the price of meat has dropped by half in recent months. “People are taking it very hard,” he said. “Some have gone crazy.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, May 19, 2010 <+>]

“The disaster poses a challenge to a government already struggling to address the needs of the third of the population that lives in poverty. But it also raises a host of thorny questions about climate change, environmental degradation and whether the pastoral way of life that sustains many of the country’s 3 million people has a future. Mongolians are fiercely proud of their millenniums-old nomadic ways... Although mining and tourism are a growing portion of the Mongolian economy, a third of the population still depends entirely on husbandry for its livelihood. “The key question we have to ask is whether this way of life is sustainable,” said Mr. Usmani of the United Nations. “It’s a very sensitive issue.” <+>

“Despite the severe winter, one of the more sensitive long-term issues, oddly, is how to curb the explosive growth in livestock, which has quadrupled to 40 million head since the 1990 revolution that ushered in democracy and ended a socialist system that tightly controlled the size of the nation’s herds to prevent overgrazing. Environmentalists and government officials agree that the two decades of unbridled privatization and a boom in cashmere exports upended the traditional mix of livestock, which had long favored sheep over goats. <+>

Potential Dzud in 2016

The summer and winter of 2015 and 2016 had the makings of a dzud. In March 2016, Terrence Edwards of Reuters wrote: “Global aid agencies are responding to a call for assistance by Mongolia as harsh winter weather raises fears for the safety and livelihoods of the country's traditional pastoralists, who have already been hit hard by a drought...Dry weather has scorched most of Mongolia's wheat crop and now mass animal deaths due to a freezing winter, locally known as "dzud", are threatening more pain for the country. While the government has not yet declared the current winter a natural disaster, it has warned the situation could get worse. So far, a drop in temperatures to minus 55 Celsius (minus 67 Fahrenheit) has killed nearly 200,000 livestock. [Source: Terrence Edwards, Reuters, March 3, 2016 */*]

“The weather and grazing conditions are already worse than they were in the previous dzud, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said in a statement, citing the Mongolian Ministry of Food and Agriculture. "Usually for the dzud, the most devastation is observed in March, April and May," Garid Enkhjin, national program coordinator for the IFRC in Mongolia, told Reuters.” */*

“Currently, 80 percent of Mongolia is under snow, making it difficult for nomadic families to travel along centuries-old pasture routes to find food for their livestock. Aggravating the situation is the fact that herders can live up to 50 kms (31 miles) from urban settlements and many are without cars. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has said it plans to provide trucks to get aid to families' doorsteps at some of the most-difficult-to-reach areas. "We want to relieve the burden of that last mile of distance to the most affected," Ben Hemingway, USAID's regional adviser, said. */*

“In the worst affected districts, sheep and other livestock have started dying. Many herders are trying to sell their animals while they are still alive, leading to an oversupply of livestock that has driven down market prices.Although the death toll for animals so far is far less than in 2009, "the impact on the people is more or less the same", said Enkhjin. "Livelihoods will be impacted immediately and have devastating effects." */*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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