With an average of 260 sunny days a year it’s hardly surprising that Mongolia is known as “The Land of the Blue Sky”. While winter temperatures in the north drop as low as -25°C (-13°F), Mongolia’s summers – when most tourists visit – are generally pleasant. Spring is most notoriously unpredictable and autumn is regarded by Mongolians as the best time of year. For seven to eight months of the year, Mongolia’s mean temperature is actually below freezing. But in the short three mounts of summer, the weather turns warm and pleasant in most of the country but with temperatures in the Gobi Desert rising to 40°C (104°F). (Night temperatures here can still drop dramatically, however.) Winter lasts from mid-October to April, with January the coldest month averaging -26°C (-15°F). Although a high-pressure ridge over northwest Mongolia provides sunny if freezing days, snow does fall but is relatively light except on mountains peaks. Lakes and rivers are frozen solid up to a meter thick. In some regions such as the northwest, winter temperatures can drop to -50°C (-58°C). The lowest temperature ever recorded was -58° (-72.4°C) at Uvs Lake in the Great lakes region. Even in the Gobi, winter temperatures can drop to -40°C (-40°F). No wonder Mongolia’s average annual temperature is barely 1°C (33.8°F).
But the greatest disaster that Mongolian winters can bring is the zud when blizzards, fierce winds and record low temperatures combine to freeze grass in a layer of ice which prevents livestock from eating. Usually following unusually dry summers, the zud kills millions of animals and devastates the rural economy. In consecutive winters in 2000 and 2001, more than six million or one –tenth of Mongolia’s stock died, prompting massive domestic and foreign aid assistance. Some regions of Mongolia are still recovering from this tragedy.
“Spring is like a woman,” goes an old – and obviously very male- Mongolian saying. And the weather certainly is changeable, tempering the joys of the long winter’s end and the start of the growing cycle. Starting in March, the air pressure fluctuates madly and constant dust and windstorms blow (it can be difficult just to get out of a vehicle.) Even in May, cool days and freezing nights are followed by stifling heat waves. Overnight, blistering winds bring sudden lethal snowstorms- in early Junes 2008 one such storm killed over 50 herders and thousands of animals on their first post-winter feeding forays on Mongolia’s eastern steppe. But as the snow melts river rise, trees sprout and grass reappears, spring is needed a pleasant time.