The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth

Atacama Desert

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

Climate specifics.

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.

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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.

Moon Valley

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 salt figures that create an amazing contrast to 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.

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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 in rented vehicles, which can be booked in nearby communities.

The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world

Atacama Desert Dunes

The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world. It originates at the border of Peru and Chile and extends 1,000 km to the south. Atacama lies along the coast of Chile in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the largest water surface on the planet. Most of the desert is at a very high altitude in the mountains. The total area is about 105,000 km2.

It is about the size of New York State in the United States. It is 50 times drier than Death Valley in California. The incredibly dry desert receives an average of 10 mm of rain per year. In many places, it hasn’t rained in years. Some places haven’t seen rain for 400 years. Solar radiation is very intense because of the high altitude and thin atmosphere. The possibility of life in some places is zero, there are no ticks or scorpions, predators and their victims. Total sterility.

The Atacama Desert in Chile – interesting facts

Many people would be surprised to learn that more than a million people live in the Atacama Desert today (according to the influential National Geographic). They are concentrated in coastal towns, mining villages, fishing villages, and oasis towns. International teams of astronomers are stationed in the coastal desert zone and explore outer space because of the perfectly clear skies.

Farmers in the far northern regions of the desert grow olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers using a drip irrigation system, making up for the lack of water with deep aquifers. A chain of snow-covered conical volcanoes feed meltwater to valleys, oases, and salt lagoons, so that the descendants of pre-Columbian civilizations (mostly Aymara and Atacameno Indians) were somehow able to adapt to living in such harsh conditions, herd llamas and alpacas, and grow crops.

Atacama Desert photo

Unlike ordinary deserts like the Sahara in Africa or the Mojave in California, the Atacama Desert (Chile) actually has fairly cool average daily temperatures, which range from 0 ° C to 25 ° C. Although Atacama is the driest desert in the world, that doesn’t mean it never rains. The warming effect over the Pacific Ocean near the equator changes the weather around the world, and even places like the world’s driest desert are likely to receive rain.

Atacama Desert Chile

Why Atacama is the driest desert in the world

Areas that receive less than 250 mm of rainfall per year fit the definition of desert. The Atacama Desert receives, on average, 10 mm of rainfall per year. So why is it that of all the driest places on Earth, Atacama is the driest of all? The answer suggests itself: it doesn’t rain. So why doesn’t it rain? If we answer that question, we can explain why Atacama is the driest desert on the planet.

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There are two main reasons why an area becomes a desert. Either of these reasons is enough to cause a desert to form, Atacama has all two.

Atacama Desert in Chile

One reason why the Atacama does not receive enough rainfall is because of a phenomenon called the rain shadow (the area of least rainfall). The warm, humid tropical air that blows from the east and brings rainfall to the jungles of South America meets an obstacle on the eastern slopes of the Andes. The mountains are so high that the air currents cool, condense, and bring rain (or snow) there. This is one reason why the Amazon basin and the river itself are the largest in the world. The mountains, which contribute to the Amazon being the largest river due to the abundant rainfall here, are the reason why the Atacama Desert does not receive any rain at all. The driest and the wettest places in the world are located in close proximity to each other!

Atacama Desert

The first reason is complemented by the second. The Atacama Desert is located in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean, where a cold Humboldt Current flows northward from Antarctica and runs along the western coast of Chile and Peru. Therefore, the Pacific Ocean water temperature off the coast is significantly cooler than would be expected at this latitude. Any wind from the sea cools as it crosses the Humboldt Current, and it lacks enough heat to pick up moisture from the ocean surface. Thus, unlike most winds from the seas and oceans, these are dry.

Atacama Desert: Interesting Facts

– The Atacama Desert has over 160 species of cacti, 90 of which are endemic, meaning they can only be found here. The source of vital moisture is the dense camanchaca fog. The fog is essentially a very low cloud consisting of water vapor. When the air temperature reaches the dew point, the water vapor condenses and leaves behind small water droplets. The Atacama Desert’s few living creatures survive by extracting moisture from the fog.

The fog feeds moisture to plant communities called lomas, isolated islands of vegetation that contain a wide range of plants, from cacti to ferns. The salt lakes area is home to coots, flocks of flamingos that feed on red algae that grow in the water. In all, there are about 200 species of living creatures, mostly reptiles and insects. But sometimes the Atacama Desert blooms .

Blooming Atacama desert

– The Atacama is one of the oldest deserts in the world. Scientists believe it was formed at least 20 million years ago, maybe even 40 million years. It is much older than the other deserts of the world. The dry valley of Antarctica is about 10-11 million years old. The Namib Desert in Africa was formed 5 million years ago. Thus, the Atacama has been in a very dry state much longer than any other desert in the world.

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– The first people began to develop the Atacama Desert about 10,000 years ago. The South American Indians, who homesteaded in the desert, left many relics of their high culture, and even themselves. Because the Atacama is a completely dry region, the bodies of the buried Indians dried up and preserved perfectly, turning into mummies.

Some of the oldest mummies found on our planet come from the Atacama Desert, dating back more than 9,000 years! The desert may be a heartless killer, but it is a good conservator. Without moisture, nothing decays. Everything turns into artifacts. Even human beings.

Atacama desert mountains

– The towns of Calama, Arica, Iquique, Antofagasta and San Pedro de Atacama are the main tourist centers in northern Chile, from which you can take a tour and travel through the desert. The small town of San Pedro de Atacama, with a population of about 5,000, is located in the center of the Atacama Desert. It is the main tourist destination for exploring the Atacama Desert.

– The Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert is considered one of the driest places on Earth, with some areas having not seen a drop of rain for hundreds of years. The U.S. space agency NASA, as part of a project to study the surface of Mars, decided to use the dry and impassable parts of the valley to test their research vehicles (Mars rovers) in 2003.

Atacama desert interesting facts

– Anywhere on the planet, no matter how often it rains, there is always water in underground springs. After a rainfall, some of the water evaporates back into the atmosphere, but most of it seeps into the soil and stays there-even in the desert. How much water and where depends on a number of factors: soil composition, air and soil surface temperature, amount and frequency of rainfall, and runoff. Because the Andes is a volcanically active mountain range, magma underground heats groundwater in some places, causing geysers to erupt. The most famous geyser field in Atacama is El Tatio. Located 4,200 m above sea level, it is the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world after Yellowstone and the Valley of Geysers in Russia.

– The high altitude, lack of clouds, light pollution, dust sources and artificial pollution made the Atacama Desert an ideal place for astronomical observations. Two observatories for stargazing are located in the desert. The Paranal Observatory is located on Mount Cerro Paranal at 2,635 meters above sea level and is operated by the European Southern Observatory. La Silla Observatory is one of the largest observatories in the southern hemisphere. It is located at an altitude of 2,400 meters. 9 telescopes out of 18 were built at the expense of the European Southern Observatory.

– The people of the Atacama Desert were the first in the world to successfully use a method by which they learned how to benefit from the one type of precipitation that occurs here: fog. Such an experiment was first conducted in 1901 on Table Mountain in South Africa. But it wasn’t until 1987, in the arid coastal desert of northern Chile, that the project was successfully carried out on a large scale. It is based on the use of a netting that soaks up the fog brought in from the ocean coast. Constructed of very dense cells, the net hangs vertically over paved troughs. When the fog condenses on the surface of the mesh, the moisture drips into the trough, from where the water is delivered to the collectors. The successful application of the invention has enabled people living in other countries with arid climates, particularly Peru, Ecuador, South Africa and Namibia, to use similar technology in dry areas of residence.

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– Because of its unusual landscape, the Atacama Desert was the setting for the filming of the famous television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets. Several episodes of the adventure film Quantum of Solace, starring super agent James Bond, were also filmed in the desert.

– The lack of water makes life in the Atacama Desert much more difficult, but the extreme dryness has its benefits. The desert is known for its rich deposits of saltpeter, which in the past served as a raw material for the production of explosives and fertilizers. It is the only place in the world where its remains have accumulated, because saltpeter easily dissolves when precipitation falls, and the dry desert climate was ideal for its preservation.

In the 19th century, the desert was controlled by Bolivia, Peru, and Chile and soon became an area of conflict due to uncertain boundaries and the discovery of large deposits of sodium nitrate (nitrate). Conflict over control of these resources between Chile on the one hand and Bolivia and Peru on the other resulted in the Pacific War (1879-1883) between these countries. Seeking to seize the rich saltpeter deposits, Chile attacked Bolivia in 1879, and then Peru, which had a treaty of mutual aid with Bolivia, entered the war. As a result of Chile’s success in the war, it annexed the province of Antofagasta, causing Bolivia to lose access to the sea and Peru to lose the province of Tarapaca. The rich saltpeter reserves located in these areas fell under Chilean control.

Chile atacama desert

In the late 1930s, Chile’s natural nitrate boom came to an abrupt end. Synthetic nitrates, invented in Germany in the early 20th century, significantly undermined natural nitrate production in Chile in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Whereas nitrate production used to account for nearly 50% of Chile’s gross national product, for several decades its production had virtually come to naught. A total of 170 mining camps and towns in the Atacama Desert have been closed, and only some of them still produce nitrate. The desert is now dotted with about 170 abandoned mining towns.

– The desert has rich deposits of copper ore. It is home to the world’s largest open-pit copper mines in Chuquicamata.

– Atacama, the Torres del Paine National Park, and Easter Island are the three most popular tourist destinations in Chile, the so-called Golden Triangle of Chilean tourism.

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