Peter Petraitis has spent much of his career as a marine biologist studying the rocky shores of Maine. So he understands why some might be a tad confused that his latest project is taking him to Mongolia.
Which is, after all, a landlocked country.
But what the East Asian country lacks in oceanfront, Petraitis says, it makes up for in scientific importance. Most notably, it is literally a hotspot for studying global warming.
“What’s interesting about Mongolia is that that global climate models are indicating that central Mongolia is going to heat up more than anywhere in the world,” says Petraitis, a professor of biology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “They are looking at 10 degrees Celsius. It’s going to get hot.”
What will that warming mean for Mongolia and its people? That’s what Petraitis and his colleagues want to find out.
The Penn team recently received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study the ecological and societal consequences of increased grazing and rising temperatures in the Lake Hvsgl region of northern Mongolia. Climate change has already greatly impacted this region, and Petraitis and his team hope their work can help scientists better predict how continued warming there will impact the basic ecology of the area.
Being able to predict those changes, the researchers say, could help the Mongolian government craft smarter, more sustainable land preservation and management policies in a region that is still used today by nomadic herders.
“The Mongolian government is very interested in promoting conservation and ecotourism,” Petraitis says. “They have a vested interest economically in this. They have the Gobi Desert to the south, they’re very concerned about possible expansion of the desert to the north.”
The Penn team’s work studying changing weather conditions, permafrost depth, hydrological and carbon cycles, and the activities of both the herders and their livestock has value beyond just Mongolia.
What is learned there, Petraitis says, can be translated to most any other region facing similarly shifting climactic conditions.
The project is funded through the NSF’s Partnerships for International Research and Education, whose mission is to encourage collaboration between U.S. and foreign institutions by establishing models for international collaborative research and education.
And as Petraitis is quick to point out, this project is about more than just climate change.
It’s also about making a long-term scientific investment in Mongolia, and helping young scientists there prepare to face climatic challenges of the future.
As part of the project, Petraitis and other Penn scientists will be working with and training Mongolian scientists (pictured above), who will then, hopefully, be able to carry on similar research for years.
“A big part of the project is not just doing monitoring, but also training the Mongolians to do monitoring,” Petraitis says. “We’re going to be working with them to form a sustainable, long-term collaboration. Unfortunately, the norm in developing countries has been more of a exploitative relationship—scientists may call it a collaboration, but all they do is hire local to help collect data, and when they have it, they leave. For me, this is more about how we can train Americans to be sensitive to scientific diplomacy and then also train the Mongolians on how to do research and seek out research funding.”
Originally published Nov. 1, 2007.