Alumni stories

UB winter brings Fullbrighters: Air pollution studies in Ulaanbaatar

The Mongolian winter is far and widely known as one of the fiercest in the world and often tops the list of deterring factors that drive people from Mongolia. How-ever, many will be surprised to learn that it was the winter and the winter of Ulaanbaatar in particular that drove one of our American Fulbright researchers to Mongolia.

Atmospheric scientist Dr. Christa Hasenkopf has been studying air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, since March 2011 through the U.S. Department of State Fulbright program. She is a research associate with the Cooperative Institute of Research in the Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado. She can be contacted at:

Christa.Hasenkopf@colorado.eduAlthough Mongolia is known as the Land of Blue Sky, what brought Christa here was quite the opposite. Two years ago, she met with Dr. Dennis Ojima, of Colorado State Univer-sity, to discuss his research on climate change in Mongolia. During the conversation, Dr. Ojima happened to show her a picture taken from his hotel room window, while visiting Ulaanbaatar in the winter several years ago. Stunned by such sooty skies, Christa went to Web of Science, the largest online database of refereed science publications in the world, to find out more. To her dismay, there was practically nothing on air pollution in Ulaanbaatar in the peer-reviewed literature.

After scavenging the web for organizational reports by the World Health Organization (WHO), The Asian Development Bank, and The World Bank, Christa learned the severity of the pollution situation in UB. “The particulate matter concentrations (PM, or amount of solid stuff suspended in the air) is off the charts. PM10 (particulate matter that is 10 mi-crons or smaller - basically material that is so small it can cause respiratory and other health problems) yearly average concentrations in UB are some of the worst in the world. In fact, Ulaanbaatar’s annual average PM10 concentrations are greater than twelve times the WHO air quality guidelines. The problem reaches a crescendo in the wintertime, when ger stoves and power plants must work overtime to heat the city’s residences. This pollution has a drastic impact on the city’s health. Just recently, a paper was published by research-ers at Simon Fraser University in Canada and colleagues at various organizations in Mongo-lia that estimates that one in ten deaths in UB is associated with air pollution. That is absolutely staggering and absolutely unacceptable.”

Fast-forward to August 2011, Christa’s fourth month on the Fulbright. So far she and her collaborators in the Lodoysamba Air Pollution Group at the National University have set up an instrument measuring black carbon concentrations at an air quality station in eastern UB. “We’ll also be collecting samples of particulate matter this winter for chemical analysis at the University of Colorado. This past month, NUM senior Nyamdulam G. has joined our group and is working on this project with me.” Fortunately, through funding received from the National Science Foundation International Research Program, Christa will be staying on an extra year. “Hopefully, we’ll install more instruments around UB, and we will be able to make a more in depth chemical analysis. The data collected coupled with basic weather data will allow us to better understand the sources of air pollution in UB, hope-fully informing local air pollution policy.”

Besides learning more about the nature of the pollution in UB, one of Christa’s goals is to inform local citizens on the severity of the air pollution problem, as well as perform basic atmospheric science outreach at the secondary school level. “I have been working with a small and fantastic group of university students on developing a few atmospheric science lessons, and the plan is that the university students will deliver them to local high schools this fall.” The hope is to create a university club that will live on well past her time as a Fulbrighter here. As for the international, as well as local, community, Christa has been keeping a blog of her project on her institute’s webpage. Freshman at NUM, Javkhaa G. has been assisting with translating entries into Mongolian (see

Lastly, Christa thinks it is imperative to make it easier for others interested in studying UB air pollution to find relevant information, whether they are from UB, another part of Mon-golia, or somewhere else in the world. To that purpose, she has created It is a wiki, editable by anyone, that coalesces all of the known data, papers, talks, and upcoming events related to air pollution matters in UB that people are willing to share. Since April 2011, people in at least 14 countries and 31 cities around the world have visited the page more than 3300 times. Christa says “The more people who become aware of the magnitude of the air pollution problem in UB and consequently work to solve it, the sooner winter time UB can return to being a part of the Land of Blue Sky.”