Winter in Mongolia is a creature that crawls from some cold hell to wrap the world in its coils each year. The temperature drops so far that the air dries out and becomes too frigid even for snow. In the two winters that I spent in central Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer, it snowed sparsely in the lowlands, and the snow blew away or simply shriveled into the atmosphere after a few days. On the northern slopes of the mountains, where the larch forests grow thick, the snow would stick through March and, in patches, it would last until April – hard, icy, windblown encrustations immune to sun or heat. I had a copy of Herotodus which I read several times during those winters, when the wind was too intense to venture out, and there is a section somewhere in the book in which he reports tales of a northern land where white feathers drift down from the sky. I used to toy with the idea that those reports had come from Mongolia, even though I knew that they were likely from northern Europe. The snow in Mongolia is seldom feathery; more often, it’s sharp, needle-like, without the soft comfort of snowfall in more gentle climates.
Snow is at the heart of wolverine research and conservation, here in Mongolia and everywhere else. Jeff Copeland’s 2010 snow model shows wolverine habitat in the high mountains of Mongolia, but reports – anecdotal but widespread – suggest that wolverines in Mongolia are found outside of the snow model with some consistency. I’ve spent hours staring at the snow model maps, trying to remember my experiences, now more than a decade old, with winter snow in Mongolia. If the reports of wolverines outside of the snow model in Mongolia turn out to be true, what is it that makes the difference here, when wolverines adhere with such rigor to this model everywhere else in the world? Is it the wolverines? Is it the snow? Is it the landscape? Is it the way that people occupy the landscape? The possibilities are numerous, and this is one of the things that we are trying to figure out over the longer term.
Snow is also essential to the expedition that we are about to undertake, since we will be traveling on skis. So it seemed auspicious when, yesterday afternoon, the sky came down towards the earth, deep and grey, and soft feathers of snow began to fall across the city. I’ve been snowed on more frequently in the summer in Mongolia than in the winter, but even then the snow tends to be bitter. This is the first time I recall a quiet, gentle snowstorm here.
It was snowing across central and northern Mongolia at the same time that we were turning our faces up to blink in the snow in UB. We found this out today when we met with our logistics coordinator, Anya of Boojum Expeditions, who told us that the snow would likely make travel north to Murun, our rendezvous point with our resupply team, difficult. It would also make our resupply team’s journey south to Murun from the Darhad challenging. It’s good to think that we’ll have the opportunity to observe the behavior of snow firsthand, but hopefully not in a way that thwarts or significantly delays our trip. Still, the snowfall over the city felt like a kind welcome and a quiet reminder, amidst the bustle of sorting through gear and buying supplies, of our reasons for being here: figuring out what makes wolverines occupy the landscape in the way that they do, and what we might be able to do to keep them there, even in the places where their snow is disappearing.