Recent incidences of mass livestock mortality, known as dzud, have called into question the sustainability of pastoral nomadic herding, the cornerstone of Mongolian culture. A total of 20 million head of livestock perished in the mortality events of 2000–2002, and 2009–2010. To mitigate the effects of such events on the lives of herders, international agencies such as the World Bank are taking increasing interest in developing tailored market-based solutions like index-insurance. Their ultimate success depends on understanding the historical context and underlying causes of mortality. In this paper we examine mortality in 21 Mongolian aimags (provinces) between 1955 and 2013 in order to explain its density independent cause(s) related to climate variability. We show that livestock mortality is most strongly linked to winter (November–February) temperatures, with incidences of mass mortality being most likely to occur because of an anomalously cold winter. Additionally, we find prior summer (July–September) drought and precipitation deficit to be important triggers for mortality that intensifies the effect of upcoming winter temperatures on livestock. Our density independent mortality model based on winter temperature, summer drought, summer precipitation, and summer potential evaporanspiration explains 48.4% of the total variability in the mortality dataset. The Mongolian index based livestock insurance program uses a threshold of 6% mortality to trigger payouts. We find that on average for Mongolia, the probability of exceedance of 6% mortality in any given year is 26% over the 59 year period between 1955 and 2013.

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Published in Environmental Research Letters, v. 10, no. 7, article 074012, p. 1-12.

© 2015 IOP Publishing Ltd

Content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence. Any further distribution of this work must maintain attribution to the author(s) and the title of the work, journal citation and DOI.

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We acknowledge NSF AGS award #1137729, and funding from the Asia Pacific Adaptation Network (APAN). LDEO contribution number: 7914.