Estimating return intervals for extreme climate conditions related to winter disasters and livestock mortality in Mongolia

Haraguchi, Masahiko; Davi, Nicole K.; Rao, Mukund Palat; Leland, Caroline Wogan; Watanabe, Masataka; Lall, Upmanu

Mass livestock mortality events during severe winters, a phenomenon that Mongolians call dzud, cause the country significant socioeconomic problems. Dzud is an example of a compound event, meaning that multiple climatic and social drivers contribute to the risk of occurrence. Existing studies argue that the frequency and intensity of dzud events are rising due to the combined effects of climate change and variability, most notably summer drought and severe winter conditions, on top of socioeconomic dynamics such as overgrazing. Summer droughts are a precondition for dzud because scarce grasses cause malnutrition, making livestock more vulnerable to harsh winter conditions. However, studies investigating the association between climate and dzud typically look at a short time frame (i.e., after 1940), and few have investigated the risk or the recurrence of dzud over a century-scale climate record. This study aims to fill the gaps in technical knowledge about the recurrence probability of dzud by estimating the return periods of relevant climatic variables: summer drought conditions and winter minimum temperature. We divide the country into three regions (northwest, southwest, and east Mongolia) based on the mortality index at the soum (county) level. For droughts, our study uses as a proxy the tree-ring-reconstructed Palmer drought severity index (PDSI) for three regions between 1700–2013. For winter severity, our study uses observational data of winter minimum temperature after 1901 while inferring winter minimum temperature in Mongolia from instrumental data in Siberia that extend to the early 19th century. Using a generalized extreme value distribution with time-varying parameters, we find that the return periods of drought conditions vary over time, with variability increasing for all the regions. Winter temperature severity, however, does not change with time. The median temperature of the 100-year return period for winter minimum temperature in Mongolia over the past 300 years is estimated as −26.08 ∘C for the southwest, −27.99 ∘C for the northwest, and −25.31 ∘C for the east. The co-occurrence of summer drought and winter severity increases in all the regions in the early 21st century. The analysis suggests that a continued trend in summer drought would lead to increased vulnerability and malnutrition. Prospects for climate index insurance for livestock are also discussed.

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Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences