Dr. Clyde Goulden (far left) discusses climate change with Mongolian students. Credit: Dr. Bazartseren Boldgiv
In Mongolia, a sparsely populated, resource-endowed country sandwiched between China and Siberia, the climate is changing more rapidly than in many other places on Earth. Rising temperatures have caused rivers and streams to dry up, grass to grow stunted, and, consequently, some nomadic herders to lose their livelihoods.
Dr. Clyde Goulden, a pioneering ecologist and director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, first visited Mongolia in 1994 shortly after it emerged from the international isolation of 70 years of rule by the former Soviet Union. Since then he has devoted his life to studying the alarming climate trend and how it is affecting the country’s herders and one of the most pristine lakes in the world, the 2-million-year-old Lake Hövsgöl. His efforts have not gone unnoticed.
On March 20, in a ceremony at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Speaker of the Parliament of Mongolia Zandaakhuu Enkhbold presented Goulden with Mongolia’s highest award to foreigners, the Order of the Polar Star. Previous recipients include former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator John McCain.
William Chang, director of the Beijing office of the National Science Foundation, a long-time funder of the Academy’s Mongolia initiative, noted that Goulden’s contributions go beyond scientific research. For nearly two decades he has worked to train Mongolian scientists and to build a scientific infrastructure where practically none existed.
“He led the NSF-supported research efforts in Mongolia and trained many young U.S. and Mongolian scientists, who are now pivotal in Mongolia contributing to our understanding of global environmental changes,” Chang said. “We at NSF are very pleased that he has been recognized with the Order of the Polar Star by the Mongolian Parliament.”
A second Academy scientist is honored for his Mongolia research
In a separate honor, Dr. Jon Gelhaus, Academy curator of entomology and professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences, received the Khubilai Khan gold medal, the highest award from the Mongolian Academy of Sciences, “for his scientific contributions to the development of the biological science in Mongolia, its research facilities, and training of young Mongolian scientists.”
In 1996 Gelhaus began his work at Lake Hövsgöl with Goulden, initiating a long-term survey of aquatic insects, particularly crane flies, which are especially sensitive to changes in the environment. Gelhaus, a world expert on crane flies, and his colleagues created the Mongolian Aquatic Insect Survey and expanded the river insect surveys to the entire drainage basin of the Selenge River in central Mongolia, incorporating water chemistry and other measurements. The Selenge provides drinking water to the capital city Ulaanbaatar, where nearly half of Mongolia’s population lives, and contains most of the country’s fresh water. Later projects surveyed watersheds in western and eastern Mongolia.
“Our goal has been to understand the aquatic insect diversity of Mongolia, so the Mongolians could use that data to make assessments of water quality in the future and protect their biodiversity,” said Gelhaus, who, like Goulden, was recognized for his dedication to training young Mongolian scientists and establishing facilities and equipment so they can carry out their research.
A laboratory for climate change
Mongolia has been called “a laboratory for climate change.” While the average temperature of the earth’s surface has risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, Mongolia has experienced an increase of about four degrees just since 1960. This has caused the world to take notice and the people and economy of Mongolia to suffer.
Goulden became interested in the land of Genghis Khan in 1966 when, as part of a cultural exchange program, he visited Lake Baikal, the world’s largest lake. Several years later he returned on the urging of a Buddhist lama who was concerned that rapid economic development was going to affect the unspoiled and, he felt, sacred land, including the famous Lake Hövsgöl. Since then Goulden has established a long-term survey of Lake Hövsgöl and set up a program to train young Mongolians at universities around the world so they will return to Mongolia and apply their skills to helping their country.
“When Clyde started in Mongolia, he introduced what modern ecology and biodiversity research should be like,” said Dr. Bazartseren Boldgiv, chair of the Department of Ecology, School of Biology and Biotechnology at the National University of Mongolia. “Building on what Clyde started, we hope to make Hövsgöl an attractive study site for [the] international science community.”
This is not the first time Goulden and Gelhaus were recognized for their research and education programs in Mongolia. In 2007 Goulden received the Friendship Medal for his contribution to developing relations between the U.S. and Mongolia and for development of the natural and environmental field of study. In 2012 Gelhaus received an award from the Ministry of Nature, Environment and Tourism for his research contribution to conservation.