Mongolia

Building the Climate Change Resilience of Mongolia’s Blue Pearl: The Case Study of Khuvsgul Lake National Park (December 2020)

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Protected areas, such as national parks and reserves, form the basis of most national and global efforts to conserve biodiversity. They help to maintain natural living systems and the ecological processes that life depends on. Protected areas provide many benefits to human society. In the context of sustainable development, the management of protected areas is an important component of nature-based approaches to protect natural resources and “one health” for nature and people, including resilience to wildlife-related diseases.

Climate change threatens to undermine the benefits of protected areas. Mongolia supports a large network of protected areas with global biodiversity values, but is experiencing some of the fastest rates of climate change in the world. National plans are underway to expand the protected area network and promote nature-based tourism to improve the livelihoods of impoverished rural communities; yet, little information is available to support policy makers and protected area managers on how to integrate climate change within protected area planning.

This study presents the first quantitative assessment of the potential impacts of climate change on a protected area in Mongolia. It examines the projected impacts of climate change on three dimensions—biodiversity, livelihoods, and tourism—for one of Mongolia’s largest and most visited protected areas, Khuvsgul Lake National Park (KLNP).

The KLNP is located in northern Mongolia and covers 11,800 square kilometers (km2). It encompasses Khuvsgul Lake, the largest source of fresh water in the country. The climate is characterized by cold, dry winters; mild, windy summers; high temperature fluctuations; and low precipitation. Landforms comprise mountains and valleys around Khuvsgul Lake (located at 1,645 meters elevation), with a large elevational range in the park (extending over 1,800 meters) that contributes to a variety of forest, steppe (grassland), and wetland habitats. Khuvsgul Lake has retained its near-pristine water quality and, like other high-altitude lakes in cold climates, has naturally low nutrient levels and is extremely sensitive to pollution. It is the only lake in the world surrounded by permafrost, a frozen sublayer of soil that is vital in maintaining soil moisture and vegetation growth. The park supports relatively small human populations, and the dominant livelihood is herding. Major threats to the park are excessive livestock grazing and unmanaged tourism, which have damaged large areas of vegetation and soil and are polluting Khuvsgul Lake.

The study approach comprised climate modeling, supplemented by stakeholder consultations. Local meteorological data were compiled to analyze weather trends over time, and publicly available climate models were applied to develop climate projections to the year 2050. A global model (Metzger et al. 2013) was applied to categorize KLNP into “bioclimatic zones,” in which each zone represents a unique combination of climatic and environmental conditions that different plant species live within. The zones are divided into finer strata (layers), representing more detailed combinations of temperature, precipitation, and other parameters essential for plant growth. The climate models applied for the study are based on data from 1960 to 1990, and this time span represented the “baseline climate” from which to compare projected changes to 2050. To signify biodiversity values, a surrogate indicator, “ecosystems,” was used. Ecosystems are distinct landscape units, which represent different plant and animal communities and their unique living conditions. They are an appropriate unit for this study to assess change over time, given the large size of KLNP. Ecosystems in KLNP were mapped from an existing ecosystem classification (Heiner et al. 2017).

The climate of KLNP has changed significantly over the past 50–60 years. Between 1963 and 2016, mean, minimum, and maximum temperatures in spring and summer increased by over 0.3°C/decade, and the maximum annual temperature of Khuvsgul Lake increased from 14°C to 18°C. There was no measurable change in total annual precipitation during this period, but since 1980, the number of storm events has almost doubled. Residents, tour operators, and staff of government agencies have reported changes in weather patterns consistent with these trends, including longer and hotter summers, fewer light rains (which are beneficial as they soak the earth), and more intense storms and flooding. Other studies have confirmed that the permafrost layer is melting because of rising temperatures and soil damage from human activity.

Substantial further changes in the climate are expected. By 2050, mean annual air temperatures of KLNP are estimated to have risen by 2.4°C–2.9°C, compared with the 1960–1990 baseline. When high-risk climate models are applied, increases of 5.0°C or more are foreseen for some regions of KLNP. Small increases in summer and winter precipitation are projected, and rates of evaporation will increase. Overall, the climate is becoming warmer and drier, but is likely to differ between areas because of the park’s diverse topography. There will be more unpredictability and variability in weather within and between seasons. Changes in temperature are projected to be smallest at lower elevations in the park (in the floodplains and hills east of Khuvsgul Lake) and highest in the mountains east and west of Khuvsgul Lake. Increases in precipitation will be most pronounced in the eastern mountainous areas of KLNP.

Under the baseline climate period (1960–1990), the KLNP encompassed nine strata in three global bioclimatic zones: (i) extremely cold and wet zone (about 3% of KLNP), (ii) extremely cold and mesic (dry) zone (58%), and (iii) cold and mesic zone (39%). These categories reflect the generally cold and dry conditions in the park. The KLNP supports 15 types of ecosystems, comprising high-elevation alpine habitats, forest and steppe ecosystems at lower elevations, and Khuvsgul Lake. The study found a close correlation between the distribution of bioclimatic zones and ecosystems in KLNP. This confirms that vegetation communities in KLNP are associated with specific climatic and environmental conditions.
By 2050, the KLNP is projected to have undergone a profound change in bioclimatic conditions due to climate change. The mean elevation of all bioclimatic zones is projected to shift markedly upward. The extremely cold and wet zone, which is restricted to the highest elevations, and some strata of the extremely cold and mesic zone are projected to disappear from the park. The area encompassed by the cold and mesic zone—relatively the warmest zone of the park—will have almost doubled and will encompass over 82% of KLNP. New bioclimatic strata that currently do not occur in KLNP will have entered the park and displaced existing strata. Overall, about 10,983 km2 (93%) of KLNP will have shifted to an entirely different set of bioclimatic conditions not previously experienced in that location.

For biodiversity, these changes will almost certainly cause severe and irreversible impacts on the composition of plant and animal communities, individual species, and the conservation values of KLNP. Ecosystems adapted to warmer conditions and that presently only occur at lower elevations in KLNP will expand and displace the cold-adapted ecosystems of higher elevations. The treeless areas of the alpine ecosystems are likely to become populated by trees, displacing alpine plants. The area of three categories of alpine ecosystems in KLNP is projected to decline by 87%–92%. At least one rare, high-altitude plant species may become locally extinct. At lower elevations, closed forest ecosystems will be replaced by drier, open forests and steppes, which will increase the exposure of soil and permafrost to further damage and drying. Ecosystems of riverine forests and meadows may be replaced by shrub and steppe ecosystems. The KLNP supports populations of large grazing mammals, and the decline of closed forests will reduce the thick cover and rich feeding resources they rely on.

For Khuvsgul Lake, warmer waters and the increased frequency and intensity of storm events will compound the impacts of livestock waste and tourism on water quality, by promoting favorable conditions for algal blooms and increased transfer of nutrients to the lake from runoff. Changes in the seasonal temperature regime of the lake and the seasonal volume of water input from streams and rainfall, combined with water pollution, are likely to impact the communities of aquatic invertebrates and fish, which depend on high water quality and are adapted to the lake’s hydrology. The impacts of high nutrient levels and climate on lake water quality and ecology will be most severe in small, semi-enclosed bays (which are numerous around the lake), especially those occupied by tour camps. Many species are unique to Khuvsgul Lake and some, including the Khuvsgul grayling (a fish species found nowhere else), are already threatened by overfishing or water pollution. There are no nearby lakes for these communities to shift to, and species unable to adapt to the new climatic conditions may become extinct.

For herding livelihoods, all areas of the park used for livestock grazing (which are mainly around Khuvsgul Lake) are projected to undergo changes in bioclimatic strata that will result in warmer and drier conditions and a shift from forested to more open ecosystems. High livestock grazing pressures have already resulted in damage to pasture and stream banks, declining soil fertility, increased permafrost melt, and fire risk. Climate change will compound these impacts, in a cycle leading to greater environmental damage. Herding households are the most impoverished residents of KLNP, and they already have a low inherent resilience to climate change because of limited opportunities for income diversification. Declining pasture productivity under climate change will increase the vulnerability of herders and livestock through reduced availability of livestock winter fodder, weaker condition of livestock, and reduced opportunity to earn income from the sale of meat and dairy products. To supplement livestock resources, hunting and fishing may increase, placing further pressures on biodiversity.

For tourism, climate change may result in damage to park infrastructure and higher costs of operation and maintenance for the government and tour operators, risks to visitor safety, and reduced visitor experiences. The melting of permafrost has already resulted in localized land subsidence and damage to some buildings in KLNP.

More frequent or intense weather events (e.g., storms, fire, rapid changes in temperature) will increase the risk of damage to roads and tour camps from flooding, wave action on Khuvsgul Lake, rapid freeze–thaw cycles, and hazards to residents and visitors. For Khuvsgul Lake, warming lake temperatures, shorter winters, and continued pollutant inputs from tourism and livestock are likely to degrade the lake conditions. Warming conditions, combined with low existing sanitation standards, may increase the transmission of infectious diseases. Khuvsgul Lake is the centerpiece of tourism in KLNP, and such impacts are likely to result in visitor complaints. Declines in tourism due to these various issues would reduce the opportunity for residents to benefit from tourism. This is significant, as tourism—if managed sustainably—provides an opportunity to strengthen the resilience of communities to climate change through income diversification, and is one of the few livelihood opportunities compatible with the conservation objectives of KLNP.
To build resilience to climate change in KLNP, at least three approaches are required: address existing threats to biodiversity, improve habitat connectivity, and strengthen park management. In the short term, the highest priority is to address the impacts of unsustainable livestock grazing and unmanaged tourism. Given the multiple-use objectives of KLNP, a multisector approach is critical to benefit conservation and livelihoods.

Measures are recommended for improved livestock and pasture management, tourism planning, and waste management. For habitat connectivity, the KLNP is located in a landscape that is well suited to transboundary conservation. Nearby regions support a mosaic of protected areas and limited development. With effective planning, these attributes can enable some KLNP ecosystems to shift northward or to higher elevations as bioclimatic conditions in KLNP become unsuitable. As for park management, local agencies are already under-resourced and there is presently no planning for climate change. Institutional reform, revision of the KLNP management plan, new long-term management targets, and increased capacity and resources are required to effectively address existing issues and plan for climate change.

The Asian Development Bank has provided support for livelihoods, sustainable tourism, and conservation in KLNP through two projects being implemented between 2016 and 2024. The projects build on a large platform of national and international support for KLNP that has been provided by other agencies for scientific research, livelihoods, and park management. These various efforts have helped address some of the measures required to build resilience to climate change in KLNP, but the needed actions are beyond the scope of any single project or agency. Collaboration and coordination between national and international agencies, focused especially on the park’s ecological values most threatened by climate change, as well as on herding livelihoods and tourism, will be critical to achieving the effective management of KLNP under climate change.

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