From Hole to Hole: Story of the Mongolian Marmot
Ulaan Baator is the coldest capital in the world and also the capital with the longest winter. Temperatures can go up to minus 60 degree Celcius and winter lasts for nearly 9 months ending in May. I was taking my early morning brisk walk by exploring the surroundings of the Erktet Suld Gher Camp, about 25 km outside of Ulaan Baator. It was the venue for a UNEP workshop organised by the Compliance Assistance Programme of our Bangkok office. A very innovative venue indeed! We stayed in Mongolian ghers (round shaped rooms assembled and dissembled by nomads in Mongolia) – a point of departure from the usual hotel conference rooms!
End of June, traversing the steppe, amidst the bare hills is a unique experience. A vast green pasture, blue sky, a slow wind blowing across the hills made my walk a true dream walk.
Walking along a small track, I noticed something which I had never seen before. It was a marmot hurrying back to its underground hole carrying a white piece of styrofoam in its mouth. By the time I reached the hole, the marmot was already deep inside, but the white foam was a few inches down from the opening of the hole. I spotted some more white pieces brought by the marmot, arranged like a barricade at the entrance with a small opening on the side only for marmots to go inside. I could clearly see that these were pieces of insulating packaging foam picked up from a nearby construction site. The marmot was obviously preparing for winter, almost 3 months away! Marmots are the most common rodents in Mongolia. The number of underground mammals such as rabbits and marmots is higher than the above-ground animal population like camels and horses. This particular marmot must be an intelligent one and ‘responsive’ to change as per Darwin’s theory of “survival of the fittest”. The insulating foam protects the marmot against harsh winter winds blowing across Mongolian pastures. Obviously, the Mongolian marmot has entered the 21st century with the full knowledge of modern markets and technological products!
Such insulating foams are traditionally blown with CFCs or HCFCs. Once blown with these gases, they form a rigid foam and are very slowly released into the atmosphere. Though by 2010, the new production and consumption of CFCs will be phased out, CFCs will remain in foams that have already been produced. As a coordinating lead author of the Special Report of IPCC/ TEAP, I knew that in 2002, nearly 2 million tonnes of CFCs were in foams that were already manufactured and in use. By 2015, this figure will be reduced to 1.3 million tonnes due to slow release of CFCs from foam into the atmosphere. By destroying the foams, such releases can be reduced further.
As I strolled in the crispy cold morning, I wondered how much CFCs are contained in such pieces of foam that are towed by the marmots of the world. Whatever their quantities, CFCs trapped in underground holes will be released to reach the ozone hole within the next few decades.
Such release will also add to global warming as CFCs are greenhouse gases. Maybe the Mongolian marmot has masterminded climate adaptation by finding an unusual solution to make the Mongolian winters warmer. I stopped this silly thought and took a picture of that insulated home of the marmot instead.