Surviving in Isolation, Where the Steppe Has Turned to Sand

May 10, 2021 · 51 comments
P D (Somewhere USA)
Climate change is real, and it has been for millions of years. The pace is likely accelerating, but it's very questionable if we have the ability to make changes that will somehow stop climate change like desertification of the steppes of central Asia. Climate change is like a religion today. It cannot be questioned. It cannot be ridiculed. It cannot be constructively challenged and in such an environment, productive answers are very unlikely to be found. This post is likely not even going to get published because of it.
AM (Colorado)
David Wallace William’s detailed reporting of climate change in his recent book entitled “The Uninhabitable Earth-Life After Warming” is a sobering but riveting read. You will learn a lot.
Mon (Chicago)
Greg Gianforte as the most shortsighted governor in 2020, is going to turn Montana into another desert. They are killing all but 15 breeding pairs of Montana wolves which will lead to overgrazing and desertification. What is it that leads men to kill their own planet? How are we different from wild animals who cannot control their breeding?
Erik Frederiksen (Oakland, CA)
We’ve been seeing numerous impacts catching many scientists by surprise with how soon they are occurring. In 2014 two independent teams of scientists reported that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is likely irreversibly retreating. 3.3 meters of sea level rise equivalent of ice there is being destabilized by a warming ocean and energy is going into the net melting of ice all over the planet. The paleoclimate record indicates that increasing global temperature by just 1.5-2 °C above preindustrial temperature commits the system to an eventual 6-9 meters of sea level rise, a large fraction of which could arrive within the next 100 years. Corals may not survive this century of warming and acidifying oceans, and droughts and floods linked to global warming—and conflict linked to those droughts—have already caused four countries to face famine. Because of the decades to millennial long lag between a climate forcing and our feeling the full effect, due to the thermal inertia of the ocean and response time of the ice sheets, the effects we are feeling now are largely just the beginning of the result of emissions from the 20th century. And emissions have been increasing steadily for decades. We are also seeing numerous amplifying feedbacks: loss of albedo (heat reflectivity) from ice melt, permafrost melt, methane release and massive wildfires; the Earth is starting to wrest any possible further human control of the climate away. We're about out of time on this, if not already.
Jordon Balena (California)
Although this phenomenon of desertification is hitting areas like Kalmykia harder and faster than other areas, it is only a matter of time before it spreads. Climate change is affecting the land around us and our livestock. Heatwaves, droughts, and even changes in parasites resulting from climate change are affecting livestock throughout the world. On top of that, climate change is affecting rainfall patterns, leading to new cases of desertification every day. The effects it can have on our crops are boundless. Rising temperatures are not only affecting our crop's ability to grow but leading to increases in the amount of water and nutrients our crops need to survive. Due to the increases of droughts caused by climate change, getting the necessary amount of water needed will become more and more difficult. The rising heat and growing amount of carbon dioxide is also leading to increased amounts of weeds, pests, and fungi found on farms, which all compete with the crops for water and nutrients. If we're not careful, areas all over the world will experience these harsh side effects more and more, leading to more places becoming like Kalmykia. As the global population keeps growing, these problems are going to become more prevalent. If we don't want the whole world to become a vast desert, the time to change is now.
Erik Frederiksen (Oakland, CA)
@Jordon Balena They say know your history or be doomed to repeat it. Consider that a population of a few million human hunter-gatherers was apparently beyond the carrying capacity of the planet as most places where we showed up the megafauna disappeared. Around 10-12,000 years ago, when large climate oscillations settled down, we developed agriculture which allowed us to double our population many times into the billions. But agriculture faces big challenges if we don’t change our ways soon (1), as do our fisheries, and if they both decline significantly, forcing us back to being largely hunter-gatherers, history tells us that out of every 1,000 people you see maybe one survives. Except this time it wouldn’t be meat on the hoof with mastodons, large flightless birds and picking lobsters off of New England beaches. Going back to trying to hunt and gather during the 6th mass extinction isn’t the best timing so one in a thousand may be optimistic. 1 IPCC Western N America drought 1900-2100
Amy (northern va)
The land, the culture, the appearance of the people are much like Mongolia, which is also struggling with changes to their environment. Also nomadic people, the Mongolians have a lot of geologic riches and are not under Russian rule (at least not any more). Fascinating place to day, traveling in our van with a Mongolian guide, we traveled 7 hours without seeing another vehicle, phone line, or electric line. Just herd animals, mostly sheep, and isolated gers, the round home where most Mongolians in the countryside reside. It was a fascinating adventure.
Gene Cass (New Jersey)
That landscape looks like Mars. Let's hope Earth is not at risk of becoming another dead planet.
@Gene Cass An Asian Dust Bowl, I kept thinking. But I don't think it will bounce back.
Richard Simnett (NJ)
This article reminded me of a report years ago, possibly in this newspaper. Qaddafi was in power in Libya, and tried an experiment which worked. He had a large enough piece of desert to make a workable experiment, and fenced it thoroughly to keep nomads and their flocks off it. The desert bloomed after a year or two. This is no immediate help to people in the situation reported, but went some way to make it more credible that Libya was actually the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.
Aidan Thompson (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
“An enclosure where food was once stored for animals is now covered with sand.” Actually, it is not an enclosure, it is abandoned irrigation equipment, an even more poignant symbol.
Someone else (West Coast)
Climate change is unquestionably an existential threat, not only to humanity but also to much of life on Earth. However, other human impacts such as deforestation and overgrazing have already destroyed vast regions of the planet. Climate change is no doubt exacerbating the desertification described here, but humans and our livestock turned rich grasslands and their carbon-containing soil into desert throughout the Middle East, North and East Africa millennia ago, and the US Southwest and much of Mexico since Europeans arrived with their sheep and cattle centuries ago. Drastically reducing livestock in these vast dead landscapes would bring them gradually back to life, a recovery which could be assisted with soil conservation and re-vegetation measures, including intensively managed grazing where possible. Recovering soils and stands of grass sequester a great deal of carbon. The herding cultures which resulted in ecosystem destruction are already doomed by the loss of the grass they depended upon, but could be recruited as essential participants in ecological recovery.
Gene (Glade Park, Colorado)
The difference between the farm in Russia and a lot of rural America is disconcerting. No junk cars on blocks, no broken down farm machinery rusting away, no badly maintained house. Instead clean, organized, a large screen flat panel TV (in the US the TV probably would be bigger), everything looks cared for. The fires in our west are part of desertification as piñon/juniper forests burn. For more than a year precipitation in Grand Junction, Colo., has been about 2/3 normal. Colorado River looks weak and tired. Lake Powell is not going to survive much longer. Humans act like an invasive species.
White Buffalo (SE PA)
@Gene No rusting machinery? Go back and actually look at the pictures. I saw plenty. Probably no where near as bad as the places in the US you are describing but there is still the detritus from men in the places being abandoned.
liz (seattle)
the climate didnt change. they have done exactly what americans did during the dust bowl- they took too much off the land. they have depleted their soil. they need conservation now.
Mary Sojourner (Flagstaff)
Thank you for this, but I have lived in an American desert, which tourists often drive through and say, "There's nothing out there." Quite the contrary, to walk in that desert is to discover life all around you. So, this, "The sun rises and floods the desolate and lifeless steppe..." seems the observation of a human-centric and sleep-walking travel writer. On the other hand, if vanlifers and Instagrammers believe there is "nothing out there", maybe they will leave this hard beautiful place alone.
Paul (California)
This is a poignant piece but I would have appreciated more background info about the history of the area and the way the climate there has changed. In one of the photos there is an irrigation system that has fallen into disuse. I assume at one point the Steppe was irrigated agriculture but there is no mention of that in the article.
Uncle Bruce (Indianapolis)
This photo essay by Maxim Babenko is yet another excellent prsentation of the best photography in the NYT. I love it!
West (WY)
The same sort of desertification is starting where I live in southern Utah a few miles north of the Arizona strip. Increased heat and drought are killing drought tolerant plants like junipers and dunes are starting to form on my property. One more example of climate warming.
marty Mericka (los angeles)
@West Pinion trees are not native to your area and die whenever it gets dry, which has happened before. The desertification of Kalmykia occurred 100 years ago because of bad, Soviet forced, agricultural practices and poor irrigation systems. Let's make sure we are discussing root causes and not just the current narrative of climate change causing absolutely everything.
Paul Berger-Durnbaugh (Madison, WI)
“Nature,” one farmer said, “is forcing us to leave.” Seems to me that it's humans - overgrazing, climate change - that are the cause. "Nature", however, will always prevail.
Martha (Chicago)
Humans are part of Nature too.
@Martha Unfortunately?
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@Martha - YeahBut - most humans deny that fact.
Kim (San Francisco)
It's tough for people to lose their ways of life, but animals should not be raised or farmed, but rather allowed to live their lives freely without human intervention.
Gussie Fink-Nottle (Tennessee)
@Kim Farm animals cannot "live their lives freely without human intervention." They were bred by humans, for humans. They are not wild. Turn that flock of sheep loose and within days it will be dead.
magicisnotreal (earth)
Maybe Russia needs a green wall project too.
Erik Frederiksen (Oakland, CA)
IPCC Western N America drought 1900-2100 It makes the recent drought here in California look like a rainforest by comparison. Regarding the droughts we're on track for, here's James Hansen from a 2012 TED Talk “An important impact, if global warming continues, will be on the breadbasket of our nation and the world, the Midwest and Great Plains, which are expected to become prone to extreme droughts, worse than the Dust Bowl, within just a few decades, if we let global warming continue. . . causing massive famines and economic decline.”
Dirk (ny)
This community needs to throw off the yolk of the Muscovite colonizers. There's nothing 'Russian' about them or their land.
Russell zanca (Chicago)
@Dirk Have you lived there? If so, you probably wouldn't write what you just did. Things are not that simplistic.
operadog (fb)
Sheep. It appears it is long past time to get the sheep off the Kalmyks land. Much the steppe of the Western US still bears the scars of overgrazing by sheep in the midst of drought in the early to mid 1900's. With climate change in the mix sheep ranching is no longer viable in many places. Then what do they do? Wait it out elsewhere in some other endeavor.
Paul (California)
@operadog I guess you think it's simple to pick up and move several hundred or more sheep to "somewhere else"? It's amazing to me how readers can have so little empathy for other people's lives. It's not just sheep, it's food crops of all kinds that farmers all over the world are finding they can no longer grow in the places they live. It's not that easy to just "pick up and move" a farm. And this should be a major concern for people who depend on farmers...i.e., all of humanity.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@operadog - "Much the steppe of the Western US still bears the scars of overgrazing by sheep…" # USA cattle = 95 million # USA sheep = 5 million Most of those "meat animals" are in the Western US. Not defending sheep by any means, but the environmental damage they cause is a small fraction of that caused by Big Ag's Welfare Cattle. Here in Utahstan, the BLM continues to permit cattle grazing on Our public lands. Our public property is frighteningly dry, with nothing for the cattle to graze - nothing. - but still, they roam around grinding the surface to lifeless dust. The Welfare Ranchers haul in virtually all of their food and water.
larsvanness (Sarasota, Fl)
@Miss Anne Thrope And sheep are raised in the US mostly for wool. There is a thriving fleece and wool crafting economy going on.
Peter (New YORK)
Wonderful, thank you for the photography and story.
Diva (Buffalo)
Not just a climate crisis but Soviet delusion that nature could be controlled at will. Believing that history is some sort of algorithm that can be studied to reveal the ultimate truth is a road to disaster - beware American culture warriors!
@Diva That delusion wasn't just a Soviet one; it's alive and well.
Srini (Texas)
@Diva It is not at all Russian - it is already in the Bible, which presumably, predates Russia and Putin.
Andrew (Expat In HK)
@Srini: so, is America the beast from the sea?
LilaScout (Florida)
these power games of men. I just wish they’d know we are all in the climate crisis, I just wish they’d grow up and collectively care about all beings.
Pisserqua (Co. Of Santa Cruz, Calif.)
Cool looking mobile home! (Actually I have shed, but only 6’ x 9’)
Matt B (Austin)
Likely a product of unregulated irrigation and grazing. We're witnessing in southwest Russia now what has been happening in the Middle East/North Africa for millennia. Some places just don't have the water table to be cultivated aggressively - even for grazing.
J. (Near Boston, MA)
290 miles (as the crow flies) to Sochi/ Olympic Stadium. Thanks for the reporting and images from such a critical part of the world.
Milque Toast (Beauport Gloucester)
The desolation is so beautiful, and no trash littering the steppes. My heart goes out to these seemingly gentle people. The desertification could happen here in the US. Even here in Gloucester Massachusetts, we are in drought. The southwest US is in severe drought, and more wildfires are likely to occur. Yet no one is going to stop burning fossil fuels. Half of our country thinks global warming is a hoax.
Lost In A Red State (Ohio)
As one who came of age in the 1960s and who knew or cared little of the wonders of our planet, I appreciate reading about and seeing them. I tender my thanks to the photojournalists and the NYT for helping to bring the world to me.
Sally Schimelpfenig (South of NC)
Amazingly resilient people in an unforgiving landscape. They survive out of pure obstinacy. And the sheep, it appears a miracle they survive at all. Makes me want to send a rescue caravan to carry them all to a paradise of green trees and grassland. Beautiful faces!
Centrist (NYC)
@Sally Schimelpfenig “Makes me want to send a rescue caravan to carry them all to a paradise of green trees and grassland.” Which, with over-grazing, would probably turn into a wasteland as well.
Judgeboyajian10 (Fishkill)
Yes the Chinese authoritarian government does agree strongly with the Trump crowd on one thing and that is that climate change does not exist and they as would Trump ignore the scientific results including the desertification of grasslands, smog so thick that visibility becomes near zero for weeks and polar caps melting raising sea levels wrecking havoc on coastal cities to the jubilation of fellow strong men the Russians who hunger to sweep into these melt zones in order to rapidly suck out the region’s environmentally hzzardous fossil fuel reserves.
Eric (CA)
I don't agree with the assessment of China. From what I can tell, they are making huge investments in renewable energy, much more than the US. Hydro, wind, solar, electric vehicles, you name it. When I lived there the average person seemed very concerned about saving energy, even if it was due to simple frugality. You would never see everybody driving around in F150s or have their HVAC cranked up all the time, that's for sure. Unfortunately, as long as their economy keeps growing, renewables will never keep up with demand there.
Cathie H (New Zealand)
@Judgeboyajian10 I know there is much anti-Chinese sentiment in the US but the Chinese government is not in denial of climate change, In actual fact the Chinese have been significantly more proactive than the US when it comes to trying to alleviate the causes of climate change. There is still a dependence on coal but stringent efforts are being made to reverse this. With a population of 1.5 billion their problems are rather more difficult than those of the US, however. They are also engaged in a number of major projects to reverse desertification. Few seem to care about facts these days. That is precisely what has led us down the path of rapid climate change. Instead of being anti-Russian or anti-Chinese or anti- whatever, we should all be working together to slow down climate change. If we can't work together we don't deserve to survive as a species.
Homer J. Fong (Carlisle, PA)
@Eric How many coal-fired power plants did China build last year? How many will they build this year? Yeah, they really care about the environment.