The Altai Mountains of western Mongolia may be concealing secret amidst the splendor. The breathtaking alpine landscape could hold clues to how abrupt climate change might have impacted our ancestors— and how it may impact our descendants.
This summer, a team of scientists, students and historians trekked through the hills and valleys of the Altai in Mongolia’s Bayan-Ölgii Province looking for traces of the last ice age.
“Everything’s immaculately preserved here,” said Aaron Putnam, currently an assistant research professor with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York. Evidence of the enormous glaciers that covered the landscape can be found in gentle slopes, scuffed bedrock and spectacular valleys of the region— if you just know where to look.
Medill News Service’s Sarah Kramer embedded with the team as they traversed the countryside and climbed up into the Altai, collecting rock samples that could provide insight into some of the most pressing questions in climate science: how and why did the last great ice age end— and what can that tell us about our future?
Reporters Sarah Kramer astride a Bactrian camel at a tourist outpost in the Gobi. For about $2 USD, those driving across the Gobi Desert can stop and ride camels and horses saddled with traditional Mongolian tack. The team enjoyed the jaunt, but decided to use horses to carry field equipment up Tsagaan Gol Valley. (Credit: Caleb Ward) Three gers sit side-by-side at an outpost in the Gobi. While many Mongolians still live in the traditional nomadic tents, the gers pictured serve as shops and cafes for travelers making their way across the country. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Batsuuri Jagvaral, a driver for the expedition, drinks milk tea inside a ger cafe. Also pictured: Chantasaldulan, better known as “Chackie”— camp cook and unofficial “den mother.” (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Archaeologist David Putnam sets up his tent with the help of a curious group of Kazakh children from a nearby cluster of gers. Mongolia is home to roughly 100,000 ethnic Kazakhs, making them the largest ethnic minority in the country. Aaron Putnam, David’s son, led the expedition to Mongolia. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Two cars from the expedition cross a narrow bridge across the Tsagaan Gol, or White River. The river’s opacity is due to the fine silt glaciers create as they grind against bedrock, which then flows downstream from the highest reaches of the Altai Mountains. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Aaron Putnam takes field notes while the team collects boulder samples from the Altai. The samples will be sent to the lab at the University of Maine, where Putnam and his students will analyze them for isotopes that help date the retreat of the Altai glaciers. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Peter Strand (left) and Caleb Ward collect a sample from the top of a large glacial erratic boulder. Erratics are boulders that ancient glaciers carried far from their source and then dropped on another landscape as the ice retreated. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) The sampling process, up close: the team drills small, shallow holes in the rock, then insert metal wedges and shims. They then hammer the wedges into the rock, cracking off a small piece of the boulder’s top surface. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Tomor Batbold, cook’s assistant and son of one of the drivers, leads a pack horse through a high valley on the way to the team’s most remote campsite, high in the area tentatively christened as the Tsagaan Gol Valley. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Tomor and Pagamsuren Amarsaikhan, a recent graduate of the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, warm up by the fire the morning after a cold, rainy night in the valley. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Strand sits atop a ridge created when the glacier behind him last stabilized, possibly during the Little Ice Age hundreds of years ago. The rockiness of the ridge and the lack of vegetation indicates that the feature, known as a moraine – a ridge of material left by a glacier – is relatively new on the landscape. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Strand makes detailed field notes that describe each boulder the team samples.
He records the precise longitude, latitude, elevation and size, among other measurements and qualitative notes. The team’s work in Mongolia over the next few years will provide research for Strand’s Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Maine. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) The group gathers on a rainy afternoon inside a rented dirt-floor cabin to hear the father-son duo of Aaron and David Putnam entertain with traditional American folk music. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) The Altai Mountains tower above the lake Khoton Nuur after a recent snowfall. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Hayley Wolcott, an undergraduate at St. Andrews University in Scotland, examines a small Mongolian grayling on the shores of Khoton Nuur. She joined the expedition to assist the research of Olaf Jensen, assistant professor at Rutgers University, Department of Marine & Coastal Sciences. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Ancient peoples, likely shamans, used stone tools to etch figures of animals into the polished bedrock slopes of the Altai, possibly during the Bronze Age or earlier. Pictured here are yaks, deer, ibex, horses and an Argali sheep. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) The field research team after a long day. From left: Strand, Jagvaral, Bat-Erdene Barulkhaajav, Baatar, Chantasaldulam, Tomor, David Putnam, Wolcott, Tanzhuo Liu, Aaron Putnam, Ward. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) While the scientists collect rock samples, Kazakh horsemen often come to investigate the team’s work. Bayan-Ölgii, the far western province in which the team worked, is 88 percent Kazakh. Many families from the Central Asian ethnic group settled in Mongolia after being forced into diaspora by the expansion of the Russian Empire at the end of the 19th century. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) The view from just above the Khoton Nuur campsite, on a ridge designated Biluut 2. In the distance we see Biluut 1, then Khoton Nuur and more Altai peaks in the background. (Sarah Kramer/Medill) Kramer wades in Khyargas Nuur, a salt lake in Uvs Province. Ward wades out farther in the distance. (Credit: Tsetsenbileg Bavuu)
Medill’s embedded science reporting initiative is supported by scholarship funding from the Carnegie Corp. of New York.