On the seasons: Ulaanbaatar in the Anthropocene


I have three blog posts going simultaneously now, and am ill-advisedly starting this fourth one, but this is what I woke up thinking about today, so I am going to start and hopefully finish it, so I can get back to the others. I am back to posting once (maybe twice) a week now, since classes have started back up at Mongolia International University, and I am very busy teaching four entirely new courses. I am also trying to do several other things outside of teaching and this blog, so time is tight!

Anyway, I have spring fever. Bad. Like, I think I could die from it bad. I haven’t experienced this in a long time. I grew up in New Jersey, and I remember spring fever well, when you just couldn’t wait for the warm air and sunshine on your face and skin, the green grass, the smell of damp soil and flowers. The endless brown and gray of winter became unbearable the closer spring came, as days lengthened, snow melted, and buds started appearing on the trees. I always loved early spring, when the forest behind our house would turn fuzzy green with barely sprouted leaves. Even though it could freeze again, could still snow, you knew it was only temporary, and soon you would be able to shed your many layers of clothes and walk barefoot on the soft, squishy earth. This is what I lived for, most of January and February, until March came along, with the vernal equinox when spring would become official. More than just a promise hinted at by the warming sun and a gentle breeze.

Ulaanbaatar’s winter has been an experience. It’s the coldest winter I’ve been through, except possibly the winter I spent in Hokkaido, Japan, where we also had tons of snow on top of the frigid temperatures. Every day here has been potentially glorious, with deep blue sky and sun, except for the pall of pollution over the city. But boy, has it been cold. Like snot freezing in your nose the moment you take a breath outside cold. I got used to my breath billowing out in dragon-puffs of steam, crystalizing in my eyebrows and hair and even in the fuzz on my cheeks. And I’ve heard that this winter was warmer than usual, so I feel rather fortunate, because last winter was seriously cold. With temperatures often well below zero Fahrenheit, this winter has been plenty cold enough for me. Now, with even night time temperatures going above zero and daytime temperatures in the 30s, it’s looking positively toasty. We are starting out March ten degrees above the average temperature, which thrills me, but also hints at major problems. Like climate disruption.

Emma grew up in San Diego, so this weather has been hard on her. She’s used to running barefoot year round (shoes are optional at her school there), wearing the bare minimum clothing, maybe putting on a jacket when the nighttime temperatures would drop into the 40s. Here in Ulaanbaatar, she’s had to get used to wearing socks and shoes every day (of course, her school here requires them). Not to mention long-sleeved shirts, sweat shirts, and a parka. She considers it torture. She really has no concept of how to dress for cold weather. I go out with a fleece beanie or a faux-fur bomber hat, ski gloves, a yak wool scarf I bought here. Emma goes out with just her coat. She has some gloves in her pocket, but she almost never wears them. And once or twice she’s worn a hat (she has the same fleece beanie I have). So far, she hasn’t frozen, but when we were traveling out in the countryside in February, she got really cold a few times.

Now, I just want to go outside in my long-sleeved t-shirt. I don’t have anything between a parka and a fleece pullover, and it’s a little too cold for the latter and a little too warm for the former. I’ve heard that spring here is not very pleasant, because it’s windy and a lot of dust blows into town. If there is snow, it’s not as bad, but there hasn’t been snow this winter. Gerelee, my department’s secretary, also told me that everyone is tired in the spring, recovering from the harsh winter and the energy it requires. I’ll be interested to see what spring is like. Summer is everyone’s favorite season here. I imagine it will be mine, too, because it has been everywhere I’ve lived except Cairo.

It’s been interesting to experience again what in Japan people always called “the four seasons.” A lot of people insist that California doesn’t have seasons, but they either haven’t lived there or haven’t been paying attention. Of course, everywhere that is not on or very close to the equator has seasons, but a lot of people in the US suffer from the notion that you also have to be north of the Mason-Dixon line to experience seasons. This has been supported by popular culture, where winter is always cold and snowy and summer is always hot and spent at the beach (just watch “The Year Without a Santa Claus” for one example).

While it’s true that in San Diego you can go to the beach year-round, during my 20 years there, I have come to love its seasonal changes. I feel the seasons every bit as strongly as I feel them here in Ulaanbaatar, though I never really experienced spring fever there since the sun remains fairly strong even in the winter, and a cold winter day in Carlsbad is like a warm spring day in Boston. But the light changes through the seasons, and of course the plant and animal life does, too. The cold, crisp nights of winter are nothing like the cool evenings of summer. And then there’s “May gray” and “June gloom,” when the marine layer can sit above the coast all day long, and you never get a glimpse of sun. One of the first summers I was in San Diego, June gloom extended through the summer, and it felt like the sun never came out once. And, of course, there are the Santa Ana winds that blow sporadically from October (which is a hot month) until December or January, normally, though there have been years where they’ll blow once a month all the way through June. Climate change has been making things wonky, of course, and there have been noticeable differences over the two decades I’ve lived there. But there are seasons, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here in Ulaanbaatar, it felt like we went from summer straight into winter. The first snowfall was in mid-September, and it snowed again in October, though I don’t think it’s really snowed since then. The leaves changed color very quickly (not like in San Diego, where you can have leaves changing color and dropping from October until February). Everything was brown well before the end of October and has been ever since. I don’t know when it starts to get green here. I feel like it’s never going to. But then, suddenly, one day it will start to happen, I am sure. Even so, I look at the first few pictures I took here, when we were wearing short sleeves, and I can’t imagine it. I can’t remember what it feels like to be so warm that you don’t need a coat.

Of course, indoors is another story. It is sweltering, especially now that the outdoor temperatures have gone up a bit. And the pollution is still bad enough that I don’t want to open the windows. We don’t have “airpocalypses” anymore (what my air pollution app calls it when the air quality index—AQI—goes above 300), but the AQI ranges from around 250 during the night and early morning to 120 in the afternoon. (Basically, you want the AQI as close to zero as you can get it, but anything under 50 is OK.) When I get up in the morning, I am dying to open a window, but that’s the time when the pollution is at its worst. I’ll pop out onto the balcony for a few minutes to cool off. It reminds me of our apartment in Pittsburgh, where we lived when Emma was three years old. We kept the windows open all winter because the heat from the radiators was unbearable, and the valves were painted open. We could open the windows there. Here, I have all the radiators turned off. Even so, it’s way too hot.

At this point, you might be wondering why I go on about the weather so much. I’m not British, though I do have British ancestry on my father’s side. But it’s because I notice the world around me, often a lot more than most people I know. I pay attention to the light, the air, the sun, the sky, the earth, all of it. It matters a lot to me. I love the outdoors. And I also think it’s important to document the weather now in the Anthropocene, the era of human-induced climate disruption, where no part of the earth has remained untouched by my species. Things are changing, and they will change more quickly than we realize. Remember the problems I mentioned earlier? The warmer than usual winter here and the lack of snow, while pleasant for me, are a warning sign. Yes, last winter was harsh, but the variability and especially lack of predictability matter. They matter most for the people whose lives depend most directly on the weather, like the nomadic herders whose livestock need grass and water to survive. But they also matter for the people of Ulaanbaatar, who grow in number every year because of what happens out in the countryside.

A dry pasture

With no snow, the pastures will suffer, because they depend on the snow and snowmelt, just as the animals do. Desertification, the shifting of verdant grasslands to sparsely vegetated deserts, is a big problem here in Mongolia, and in many other parts of the world. As pastures and livestock herds die, the people who depend on them are left destitute. They move to the city to find work, and the population of the city, which is already far beyond what the infrastructure and resources can bear, continues to grow. It’s unclear how Ulaanbaatar will support these people. It’s a disturbing sign of what we all are facing. The predictability of the seasons and the weather that they bring is waning, and human security with it.

Ger district in Zuunmod

5 thoughts on “On the seasons: Ulaanbaatar in the Anthropocene

    1. Spring is almost here! That’s the worrying part. It’s too early! It’s going to be 40 degrees today–20 degrees above the average high (it’s already 5 degrees at 8:30 am). Crazy! We do have candles, but it’s way too hot for them. I thought we’d be using them, but we both can’t stand it. Though they were handy when the power went out. I’ll survive, but it’s a weird space wanting something so badly but knowing it’s going to be disastrous for thousands of people.


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