Mongolian mom integral to project

Mother of six has collected samples for NOAA since 1992

Bamuu Dorjnorov, a 56-year-old retired school teacher and mother of six in southeastern Mongolia, collects air.

She collects it for people in Boulder more than 6,000 miles away. She collects it every Wednesday, from atop a rocky hill in the Gobi Desert about 40 minutes by car from her home in Ulaan Uul. She collects it in 100-degree heat in the summer and in the winter when it's 38 below zero.

She had done it without fail since 1992 until 10 days ago, when her husband and 25-year-

Bamuu Dorjnorov at NOAA's Earth System Research Lab in Boulder
Bamuu Dorjnorov, center, talks with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Aaron Watson, back left, and Bujidmaa Borkhuu at NOAA's Earth System Research Lab in Boulder. Paul Aiken/The Camera

old daughter collected it for her. Dorjnorov was in Boulder. It was her first time out of Mongolia, besides trips across the Chinese border six miles from Ulaan Uul.

She came here to meet with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists to whom she sends all that air.

NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder has five divisions. One is the Global Monitoring Division. Within that division is the Carbon Cycle Group, which makes graphs showing rising global carbon-dioxide concentrations that scientists and policy-makers around the world rely on.

The graphs rely on data points. To get a single data point, Dorjnorov must stand on a Gobi Desert hill and collect air through a clear-plastic hose attached at the end of a modified Korean fishing pole extended 15 feet into sky.

Since 1992, Dorjnorov's points have formed a curve showing average carbon-dioxide concentrations in the Mongolian desert climbing more than 7 percent. But the rise has not been smooth.

The gas's concentration plunges some 5 percent each spring when the Siberian forests, among the world's great carbon sinks, gulp millions of tons of carbon dioxide to convert into leaves. The concentration leaps again in the fall, always slightly higher than the previous year due to humanity's burning fossil fuels, as those leaves fall and rot.

Russ Schnell, director of observatory and global network operations at NOAA's Earth System Research Lab, said models predict more seasonal variability in Mongolia than the United States because of the Siberian forests and Russian and Chinese pollution. But without Dorjnorov's dedication, no one would know for sure, he said.

Once a month, Dorjnorov rides trains for 16 hours to the capital city of Ulaan Baatar. She brings two metal suitcases, each filled with four bottles of air. She takes a taxi to the Mongolian Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. An atmospheric researcher named Bujidmaa Borkhuu collects the suitcases and gives Dorjnorov replacements. Dorjnorov sometimes spends the night in the capital, but usually she gets right back on the train.

She does this for $35 a month, which she considers a fair wage for part-time work in a country with a per-capita gross domestic product of $1,900 per person.

Borkhuu, 33, calls the American Embassy, which ships the bottles to Washington, D.C., via diplomatic mail. State Department officials in Washington then send them to Boulder.

NOAA's Global Air Sampling Network has about 60 collecting stations, said Thomas Conway,the NOAA scientist who runs it. It includes a sampling station on Niwot Ridge above Nederland. It includes a sampling station on a Mauritania-flagged container ship ferrying between Long Beach, Calif., and New Zealand. It includes sampling stations that fly on Cessna-type aircraft, including one Borkhuu manages in Ulaan Baatar. There are monitors in Kazakhstan, Romania, Algeria, Namibia, Barbados, Antarctica and Iceland.

At any given moment, thousands of bottles are either sampling air, en route, or being tested in Boulder.

Researchers test the returned bottles for 20 gases. Like pointillists, they use the data to paint an evolving portrait Earth's atmosphere.

"We pretty much squeeze out of them everything we can," Conway said.

In Boulder, Dorjnorov, Borkhuu and Borkhuu's 5-year-old daughter, Khulan, are staying with NOAA public-outreach manager Carol Knight until Monday. Knight took them to a Rockies baseball game; they cooked Mongolian food for Knight. With Borkhuu translating, Dorjnorov said she's impressed by all the flowers and trees, something one doesn't see in the Gobi Desert.

Borkhuu and her daughter head to Wyoming next week, where NOAA has arranged a two-year fellowship for her to study atmospheric science in Laramie.

"People tell me it looks like Mongolia," Borkhuu said.

Dorjnorov leaves Monday. She has air to collect.