Losing The Eternal Blue Sky

Meet a changing Mongolia. Rivers are dry. Pastureland is giving way to mines. And wintertime smog obscures the famed blue sky. How did the country get here? It’s a story of internal migration and economic transformation in an era of climate change.

Mongolia is a massive, landlocked nation located between Russia and China. Nearly half of its 3 million people live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. It wasn’t always like this. But a shifting economy and natural disasters have spurred hundreds of thousands to relocate. We follow that internal migration through three locations: the capital, the steppe and the desert.

The Capital


Since Mongolia’s democratic revolution in the early 1990s, the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, has experienced explosive growth, while the rural provinces have seen little population change.

= 1,000 people.

Ulaanbaatar 1991: 0.6 million

Rural 1991: 1.6 million





Ulaanbaatar 2018: 1.7 million

Rural 2018: 1.7 million

Decades of internal migration and rapid expansion have transformed Ulaanbaatar. Every winter, the streets turn hazy as the air thickens with pollution.

Many Mongolians continue to live in traditional round tents called gers. Approximately 200,000 gers in Ulaanbaatar are heated by burning raw coal to survive the freezing winter, when temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night.

Munguntuul Oyutan, 11, with her grandmother, Tserenkhand Damba, 70, and father, Oyutan Gonchig, 35, in the ger district.

Air quality has diminished as migration to Ulaanbaatar has ballooned. Respiratory infection is commonplace, especially among children.

During winter, the pollutant PM2.5, consisting of fine particles, spikes to levels classified as "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index. Below are maximum, minimum and average daily readings taken at the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar between July 2018 and July 2019:

Air quality levels (AQI)

  • 0-50
  • 51-100
  • 101-150
  • 151-200
  • 201-300
  • 301-500
  • n/a

For most of this period, Ulaanbaatar’s average air quality was in healthier ranges. But during winter, the city’s PM2.5 concentration spiked into "very unhealthy" and "hazardous" ranges, putting it in league with some of the world’s more polluted cities. (Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, both known for air pollution problems, are included below for U.S. comparison.)

Despite the toxic air, Ulaanbaatar is still a draw for many. Life in the countryside is harder. To understand why Mongolians are moving away from rural areas to urban centers, let’s hit the road.

The Steppe


The grassland steppe is home to generations of semi-nomadic herders. A quarter of Mongolian households make a living from herding, selling the animals’ milk, meat and wool.

Baasankhuu Choijinkhuu, 64, prepares to steam dumplings (buuz). Her home is a ger, a circular wooden frame draped with felt.

Those who make a living herding, like Baasankhuu, endure dramatic swings in temperature and precipitation. Mongolia is a drier, warmer place than it was in her childhood.

Climate change poses a problem for Mongolia’s 66 million livestock. The nation already has an overgrazing problem.

Yaks graze in Arkhangai province in February. Baasankhuu’s son, Myagmarjav Mishinkov, 46, rides his horse beside the family’s solar panel.

Climate change is degrading the pastureland further — through drought especially. Herders must be quick-footed in the face of changing weather patterns, leading their animals to areas with grass to eat and adequate shelter.

But there’s one cold-season disaster that tilts an already delicate balance: dzud. It’s a winter so extreme that animals cannot survive. They die of starvation, illness and exposure to the elements.

Mongolia weathered consecutive dzuds from 1999 to 2002 and again from 2009 to 2010, all against the backdrop of a drought linked to climate change. A total of 21.5 million animals died during those periods.

Herders bury animal carcasses on May 8, 2010, in Mongolia’s Dundgovi province. (Jargal Byambasuren/Reuters)

In the winter of 2010, starvation set in as Mongolia was blanketed in a deep layer of snow, preventing livestock from reaching grass to feed.

Average minimum temperatures for January plummeted as low as minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit, freezing weakened animals where they stood and decimating entire herds.

By the end of winter, the slowly unfolding catastrophe left more than 10 million animals dead, with some provinces losing 50% of their livestock. 2009 to 2010 was Mongolia’s worst recorded dzud, killing 23% of all livestock in the nation. Each bar represents the total percentage of animals lost in that year.

For herders who measure their wealth in animals, a dzud this extreme is crippling. Scientists predict more frequent disasters of this magnitude in the future.

Herders facing a heightened risk of dzud have adapted as best they can. Nergui Davaajav, 44, and his wife, Tumurchudur Galsanjamts, 43, now prepare an extra reserve of winter fodder — just in case.

With 1,200 animals in their herd, that’s a lot of mouths to feed.

Nergui carries strips of cowhide. He’ll tan them for leather.

Nergui and Tumurchudur are trying to adapt to climate change. “Nature is unpredictable, as summer gets hotter and there’s less rain,” Nergui says. “But if we prepare hay fodder, we can overcome such natural disasters. We don’t have to be afraid.”

Nergui keeps a close eye on his sheep and goats, riding out inclement weather and relishing blue skies. He refuses to give up this way of life.

But not everyone has weathered dzuds as well. Mongolians who lost all their livestock — all their wealth — to dzuds have had little choice but to give up herding and move. Since 1999, the overall proportion of Mongolian households with herding as their primary economic means has decreased from 50% to 25%. Below, lines represent the percentage of herding households, in each of Mongolia’s 21 provinces and in Ulaanbaatar.

While some Mongolians giving up the herding lifestyle are moving to the city, others are seeking opportunity in a new frontier: the Gobi Desert.

The Desert


In the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, the herding industry is giving way to the mining industry. While the land is peppered with livestock, the rock below is rich with coal, copper and gold.

Herds of animals in the South Gobi are being replaced by thousands of trucks delivering mineral products to China.

In the South Gobi, Mongolia is capitalizing on its mineral reserves by trucking massive volumes of coal and copper across the border to China each year, generating hundreds of millions of dollars annually and supercharging GDP growth.

Traffic along the coal road is bumper to bumper. A driver can be stuck in line for up to seven days before crossing the border.

Coal truck drivers offer a portrait of generations supporting Mongolia’s mining industry. Some are fresh out of high school, making money for college. Others are parents, sending money home to their families.

Baatarkhuu Shagdarjav, 56, Gulnara Dariiga, 38, and Naraa Batdulam, 31, drive coal trucks from Mongolia to China.

And the nation is digging deep for a level of wealth previously unknown. Arid landscape dotted with camels has given way to heavy machinery and open-pit mines like this one.

Mongolia’s largest mining project is Oyu Tolgoi, a copper, gold and silver mine in Khanbogd. Deposits are estimated to contain 20.8 million tons of copper and 23.5 million ounces of gold. Currently open pit, Oyu Tolgoi plans to develop underground mining. (Emily Kwong/NPR)

Trucks kick up fragile topsoil. Frequent dust storms cloud the skies. Community groups have spoken out, accusing the industry of diminishing local water wells. The landscape is changing as the industry grows.

Tavan Tolgoi in Ömnögovi province, in Mongolia’s part of the Gobi Desert, is one of the world’s largest, untapped coking and thermal coal deposits.

While the environment degrades, there’s money to be made along the coal road. The advent of mining in the South Gobi has drawn thousands to the region, seeking both formal and off-the-books work.

Elbegzaya Chuluundorj, 36, and her cousin, Khandarmaa Baterdene, 33, came from Ulaanbaatar to run a ger restaurant in the Gobi.

Whole communities have sprung up in the desert. Tsagaan Khad (White Rock), about 14 miles north of the Chinese border, caters to truck drivers — a place for a hot meal, fuel and a game of cards.

Satellite imagery from 2009 and 2019 reveals the explosive growth of Tsagaan Khad. The unplanned community went from a handful of homes to having 10,000 people staying there or passing through at any given time.

Restaurant owner Batdelger Genden, 51, is astonished by the region’s growth. She calls the Gobi Desert “Mongolia’s Korea,” a place for job seekers who can’t find work elsewhere.

Plenty of Mongolians fear the country’s direction in the long term. As the nation goes big on mining, what will become of the land?

Some are taking matters into their own hands. One herder who lives in the Gobi, Tomorchuluun Tavkhai, 69, has planted trees in an effort to combat desertification.

Tomorchuluun says, “Mongolia is like a small island in a blue planet.”

“If we help preserve the environment,” he adds, “I think it will be helpful for the rest of the world.”