The Atacama Desert is one of the driest regions in the world. It begins near the Peruvian-Chilean border and extends 1,000 km south. The desert borders the Pacific Ocean in the west and Bolivia and Argentina in the east. Its main part is at a considerable altitude. The area of the Atacama is 105 thousand km² – this area is roughly equal to the area of the state in New York in the United States. It usually receives no more than 10 mm of rainfall per year, and in many parts of the desert it does not rain for years. Because of its location, the atmosphere is thin, which causes a high level of radiation. This is why the desert does not have rich flora and fauna, some places are completely uninhabited.
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Video: Atacama Desert
Unlike other deserts, the Atacama is characterized by fairly cool average daily temperatures, which range from 0 to 25°C. The area has the lowest humidity level on the planet, which is 0%. One of the reasons for the region’s minimal rainfall is a natural phenomenon called rain shade. The Andes mountain system, located in the eastern part of the desert, is a barrier for them. When it passes over the highlands, the moisture cools, condenses and falls as rain. Most of it settles on the mountain slopes and does not reach the desert. The wind, which blows from the Pacific Ocean, also has a low temperature and cannot pick up the necessary amount of moisture.
In May 2010, an unusual natural phenomenon occurred in the Atacama – snow fell in the arid desert. Then the anomaly affected several settlements. The work of one of the major observatories had to be temporarily suspended, traffic and electricity supplies were disrupted.
The history of settlement
The Atacama is considered one of the oldest deserts in the world. According to a rough estimate of scientists, it was formed more than 20 million years ago. By comparison, the Dry Valley in Antarctica is about 10 million years old and the Namib Desert in Africa is 5 million years old. The first settlers appeared on the territory of Atacama about 10,000 years ago. They were South American Indian tribes, and their descendants inhabit the desert even now. Archaeologists found a lot of bodies of ancient people here. In the dry climate they were perfectly preserved, turning into mummies. Some of them are more than 9 thousand years old.
Features of life
About 1 million people live within the Atacama. They are concentrated in mining villages, fishing villages, and oasis towns. Farming is common in the northern areas – crops are grown here. Thanks to the ideal visibility of the sky, the area is excellent for astronomical observations. International teams of space explorers are based in the coastal desert zone.
Cactus Valley in the Atacama Fog over the Desert
It is known about the existence of artesian waters in the area, but their high boron content makes them unsuitable for agricultural purposes. In the Atacama, salt marshes are common. They are small lakes that take water from mountain rivers. The surface of the pools dries up under the influence of the scorching sun, resulting in a thick layer of salt. From a distance, the lake looks quite normal, but a closer look reveals a glistening salt glaze.
Flamingos in a dry lake
The snow-covered volcanoes that can be seen nearby help to adapt to rather harsh conditions. Meltwater flows into the oases, providing a minimal amount of liquid to survive in the area. The local population has learned how to convert the mists into moisture. To do this, they invented a special method, which consists in using special high cylinders. The walls of the products are made of nylon threads designed to trap water. The liquid flows into the barrel below and is then used for various purposes. Thus, during the day you can collect up to 18 liters of water.
The unfavorable conditions for the existence of living organisms do not prevent the germination of cacti and some rare plants in the desert. There is an opportunity to meet many reptiles, insects and mammals. The Atacama has an abundance of national parks and other conservation areas.
Fog over the desert
Large quantities of copper are mined in the region – the largest mines have been laid in the towns of Chikamata and Paposo. Some of the rocks are characterized by a coating of a green tint caused by the oxidation of minerals that have copper in their composition. The plaque is known as atakamite. This mineral was first found in this particular area, which follows from the name.
The Hand of the Desert – a monument in Atacama
The desert is known for its saltpeter deposits, which used to be the basis for the production of mineral fertilizers and explosives. This material is not tolerant of moisture, so Atacama is a great place to preserve it. Production of natural nitrate peaked in the 1930s, and then it gradually stopped. The reason for this was the invention of an analogue – synthetic nitrates. Practically all mining villages and towns were abandoned by the inhabitants, only in a few of them nitrate is still mined today.
To the east of the village of San Pedro de Atacama is a beautiful natural landmark, Lunar Valley. The area gets its name from the presence of bizarre formations of salt, sand, and stone, which resemble the surface of a satellite of the Earth. Being here, you can watch an unusually colorful sunset, striking with a variety of hues. The location has become popular with many filmmakers – this place can be seen in a number of science fiction films.
Moon Valley in Atacama Rainbow over Moon Valley Moon Valley
The Valley looks especially picturesque at night. In the light of the moon, you can see the salt figures, which create an amazing contrast with the dark blue sky. Locals call them the guardians of the nearby caves. They claim that the sculptures were a kind of beacon for the astral shell of ancient shamans during their journeys to parallel worlds. Undoubtedly, Moon Valley is the most attractive place of the Atacama Desert, and tourists from all over the world come here every year.
Memo to travelers
The easiest way to reach the Atacama Desert is by air from Iquique, Tocopilla and Antofagasta. If you decide to explore the region, don’t forget your sun protection gear. Be sure to bring a hat and drinking water. The best way to travel within the Atacama is by rented transportation, which can be booked in nearby communities.
The driest Atacama desert in South America: description, interesting facts and photos
The Atacama Desert is the driest and coldest desert in the world. It is located on the territory of Chile. In some areas never observed precipitation. In the center of Atacama, the periods between rains are four years. The surface of the flat desert is covered by a lifeless crust, cracked by the lack of moisture, in which even bacteria do not live. Nevertheless, it is home to some flora and fauna and is home to about a million people.
The Atacama Desert lies on the border of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains, on the west coast of South America. Its area of more than 105 square kilometers is in Chile, in the southern hemisphere, so the hottest summer month is January. Its average temperature ranges from 18-20 degrees. The average temperature in June is around 12-14 degrees.
The Atacama Desert is a long, about a thousand kilometers, strip of land sandwiched by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes to the east. In the center is the southern bend of the Loa River and the mountains. To the north, the border with Peru runs along the Atacama. The surface of most of the area is formed by dried-up salt lakes. They are located in the West at the foot of the mountains. In the East are the bedrock deposits from the Andes.
In some places, the faults of the rocks are covered with sand dunes, but for the most part – with pebbles and gravel. Mountains close to the ocean coast, their height is mainly up to 1.5 thousand meters above sea level. Rarely, up to 2 thousand meters. Near the coast, the mountains decline sharply, forming low cliffs and boulders.
The core of the Atacama Desert is the Tamarugal Plain, which is 900 meters above sea level. To the east, on the edge of the Andes are located volcanic hills, which in some places are up to 5 thousand meters high. Along the border with Argentina and Bolivia at an altitude of 4,000 meters above sea level is the Atacama Plateau.
The driest place in the world
This place is considered the driest place in the world. In the area where the Atacama Desert is located, there are 340 days a year of clear and cloudless skies. This is explained by its location. To the east, where rain fronts form, it is enclosed by the high mountain ranges of the Andes. From the west, the lower atmosphere is cooled by the Peruvian Current, which creates a temperature inversion that basically prevents precipitation. It keeps the cold masses of water above sea level and the warm air rises.
In the last four centuries, there has been no significant rainfall in the Atacama area. Meteorological stations in some parts of the desert have not recorded a single rainfall since their founding. Despite the proximity of the ocean, it has the lowest humidity in the world, in places it is 0%. On the eastern side of the Andes, in the Amazon basin, precipitation is significant. On the western side is the driest place in the world.
Is there water in the Atacama
While precipitation in the form of rain or snow is almost never recorded in the desert, there is plenty of fog. This is facilitated by a temperature inversion in which there is a separation of air masses into cold ones from below and warm ones from above. This contributes to the formation of layered clouds and fog, which the locals use to extract water.
They do this with the help of special devices, which are cylinders, up to a meter and a half in height, the walls of which are made of nylon threads. Water, settling on them, flows into a special bowl. There are several artesian wells in Atacama, but the water from them is unsuitable even for irrigation, as it contains a large amount of bromine. Water is brought by streams from the Andes, which dissolve the salt marshes and form lagoons.
Until 1883, the desert area belonged to Bolivia and Peru. But after the Second Pacific War, or as it is called the Salt War, it passed to Chile. The prerequisites for this war were minerals, particularly potassium nitrate deposits, whose extraction was controlled by Chilean companies supported by the British government. Chile was the world’s leading producer of potassium nitrate until World War I. Revenues from this production accounted for half of the country’s budget.
Flora and fauna
The plains desert is virtually lifeless. Still, blue-green algae, small cacti, lichens, and tillandsia, a rare herbaceous plant, can be found here as well. As in any desert, oases can be found here, they are narrow strips of acacia and cactus thickets. As a rule, they are located around the temporary streams that flow down from the tops of the Andes.
The plains of the Atacama Desert are rich in salt marshes. Photos of them resemble the landscapes of other planets. Mountain rivers descending from the Andes form salt lakes, eroding the salt marshes. The winds and scorching sun quickly drain them, creating a salt cover that resembles water from afar. But sometimes water remains in the rifts, forming lagoons. Pink flamingos and coots live here.
Here you can find rocks covered with a green patina. This effect is formed due to oxidized minerals containing large amounts of copper. The plaque is known as copper hydrochloride. Since it was first studied here, it is called atakamite. It gives the rocks an unusual appearance that brings a peculiar coloring to the desert area.
One of the largest salt marshes in the world, the Salar de Atacama, is located in the southern part of the Atacama in Chile. It is surrounded by undrained mountains, and there are several volcanoes, including the most active one, named Lascar. Under the salt marsh are the world’s largest deposits of lithium, which is used to manufacture batteries and in pharmacology. The Salar de Atacama also has lagoons, the largest of which is the Chaja Lagoon. It is inhabited by rare species of birds.
To the east, the desert gradually rises to become the Altiplano Highlands, considered the most beautiful place of the Atacama Desert in South America. It is 4,000 meters above sea level. While the desert is considered the driest place on the planet and its humidity is close to zero, here you can observe irregular tropical rains that occur in January and February. This is reflected in the vegetation and fauna.
It is home to rare animals such as the vicuña (a type of llama) and the viscacha (long-tailed chinchilla). It is also home to the umbrella tree Llareta and the kenoa tree, which is considered the highest in the world. The Antiplano Highlands are home to national parks and nature reserves.
The Atacama Desert in Chile is as popular a place as the African Sahara. Its uniqueness made it famous among tourists. High mountains and the ocean created a kind of natural phenomenon. If you move east from the village of San Pedro de Atacama, you will find yourself in the Valley of the Moon, which got its name because of its resemblance to the lunar landscape. It consists of amazing formations of salt, sand and stone that have emerged over hundreds of thousands of years through wind and water. Tourists come here specifically to admire the extraordinary beauty of the sunset, which is filled with the full range of colors. Fantastic and scientific films are filmed in this place.
Three hundred and forty days of cloudless weather a year allow for almost uninterrupted stargazing. That’s why there is the Paranal Observatory with the largest telescope. It is located on top of the Sierro Paranal, which is 2,600 meters above sea level. What makes this observatory special is the large VLT telescope. It includes four optical telescopes with a diameter of 8.2 meters.
At a distance of three kilometers from the observatory and below the telescopes at 200 meters is ESO Hotel – hotel, half built into the mountain. The protruding part of the building is made in the tone of the mountain and almost merges with it. There are two gardens, a gym, a swimming pool and a restaurant. The peculiar design and the hotel itself was designed by Chilean architect Paula Gutiérrez Erlandsen.