Frozen pastures, starving herds

Monday, April 26, 2010

For the people of Mongolia, temperatures of minus 30 degrees Celsius are not unusual during the winter season. But this past winter, Mongolia has been experiencing particularly disastrous conditions referred to locally as a 'dzud'.  Dzuds are devastating for Mongolians because over a third of the population is dependent on livestock herds for their livelihoods, and during a dzud, millions of animals - sheep, goats, camels, horses, cattle, yaks - die from starvation.

Mongolian pastoralists distinguish between three types of dzud. During a ‘white dzud’, heavy snowfall prevents animals from accessing their winter forage. An ‘ice or iron dzud’ occurs when freezing rains lock the grass away under an impenetrable layer of ice. The ‘black dzud’ happens after a dry summer, when the herds have already grazed pastures down to the bare earth, and then a bitter cold winter brings on starvation. Although dzuds are not uncommon, a first-hand observer reports that "people say they haven't seen such a freezing winter in 30 years. It isn't only a problem for the livestock and herders, but also for the common people who are struggling to find a source of heat." During January and February, temperatures dropped to -48 degrees Celsius and the Government of Mongolia has declared disaster status in 12 of 21 provinces across the country. For herders, their animals provide not only meat and milk, but also cash income from the sale of cashmere wool, and fuel in the form of dried dung. The herds are also a source of prestige and the family heirloom. With the loss of their herds, families are forced to migrate to urban centres, a situation for which both herders and the Mongolian job market are ill-prepared.

The severity of this year's dzud has been compounded by other factors. Mining operations have decreased access to good grazing areas and climate change has accelerated desertification. At the same time, increases in herd size have put available pastoral lands under extreme pressure. Whereas traditionally, grasses were cut and stored during the summer to act as a buffer during harsh winter months, today herders find it difficult to locate sufficient fodder to set aside for the winter.

Far from Mongolia, Sami reindeer herders in northern Sweden have also been experiencing an increased frequency of difficult winters. During the last six years, three winters have been disastrous due to what Sami call ‘tjuokke’ – the locking away of pastures under an impenetrable sheet of ice. When this occurs, whole reindeer herds may perish unless they can be moved rapidly elsewhere or fed on industrially-produced food. According to a Swedish government report, difficult winter conditions will become increasingly common as climate change advances. As in Mongolia, options for Sami herders to respond to severe winter conditions are dangerously narrowed by competition with mining, forestry, hydropower and expanding urban areas, which increasingly occupy their traditional winter pasturelands. Climate change will exacerbate an already difficult situation for Sami herders.

Are the communities that you know facing unusual or extreme climatic conditions that may be related to global climate change? Are options for adaptation limited by additional social or environmental constraints, as in the examples above from Mongolia and Sweden? Share your views and experiences by writing to

1. Father E. Viscardi, 2010, “Mongolia: The ‘dzud’ that kills”, Missionary International Service News Agency (MISNA), Available online at

2. M. Roué, ‘Normal’ catastrophes or a harbinger of climate change? Reindeer-herding Sami coping with disastrous winters in northern Sweden”, In: UNESCO (In prep.), Indigenous Knowledge and Changing Environments.

3. Image: © UNESCO/Setboun, Michel. Mongol children in the tundra after a hail-storm with young goats

Frozen pastures, starving herds