Atacama Desert 2020
When we think of deserts, we think of an isolated area of society. Well, that’s not the case for the Atacama Desert. Instead, imagine a collision between seawater and dunes, because that’s what it looks like on its coastal facades.
Geography of the Atacama Desert
Once part of the seabed of the Pacific Ocean, the landscape of the Atacama Desert consists of hardened salt deposits called beach that stretch for miles and can be up to 1.6 feet thick in some places. This geological wonderland is said to be the driest non-polar desert on the planet, with its highest point reaching nearly 22,615 feet at Ojos del Salado. This is due to its annual rainfall of less than one millimeter, which makes it fifty times drier than Death Valley and much drier than the famous Sahara Desert.
The Atacama Desert spans 600 to 700 miles of land between the dramatic Andes Mountains and the Cordillera de la Costa mountain range. Argentina, Peru and Bolivia border the Atacama Desert. Powerful gusts of wind carry the speckled stones found on its surfaces across the room, much like tumbleweed in old cowboy movies. Its nitrate belt is 435 miles long and 12 miles wide. The Atacama Desert Plateau, high at 16,570 feet and located on Chile’s northeast border with Argentina and Bolivia, is probably the perfect place to explore the secrets of the solar system with so many giant telescopes already stationed there. It is also home to 12 volcanoes mostly located in the western limits of the Andes, the most notable of which is the perfectly symmetrical Licancabur sitting at 19,420 feet and 80 geysers spouting water over 10 meters high.
Climate of the Atacama Desert
The Atacama Desert receives almost no rain. This is due to its location between the Andes, which blocks moist air from the Amazons, and the coastal mountain range. In a miraculous turn of events, torrents of rain fall on the barren land every two years or so, sprouting colorful wildflowers as far as the eye can see, including in 2011, 2015, and 2017. While wonderful to watch, this awakening of the wildflowers signifies the end of microbial life when they are soaked in water and eventually physically burst into non-existence. This happens because these specific microbes are accustomed to the hyperarid core of the desert and react badly when exposed to water. In addition, the region has many underground water reserves accumulated over thousands of years. Curiously, scientists suspect that these storm outbursts could become more frequent in the future, making the desert wetter contrary to logic.
Another phenomenon that occurs in the arid desert is the formation of fog and stratus clouds (without rain) which is a direct product of the upwelling effect of the nearby ocean. The average summer temperature reaches 66°F, which is significantly below desert standards. With over 330 cloudless nights away from pollution, amateur and professional stargazers from around the world flock to the Atacama Desert to catch a glimpse of the starry night and all the wonders it has to offer. The landscape here is so alien that it has been dubbed Mars on Earth and is used for many experiments and tests. An array of 66 telescopes operated by the Republic of Chile and other alliances operates the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, also known as ALMA. ALMA is the most important project because it produced the first image of a black hole. Additionally, another telescope known as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) is also in the region and has collected a lot of data on the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.
History of the Atacama Desert
One would assume that such a hostile environment would not be hospitable to any form of life, let alone humans. However, this is not the case for the Atacameño people, an almost extinct Indian culture that today numbers 200 people in total. Besides the Atacameño people, a vast network of races and cultures inhabit the place. Newcomers began arriving in the area in the late 1800s. Soon after, thousands of workers began migrating to the desert due to the abundance of white gold. A natural nitrate is used to make everything from fertilizers to explosives. Today, more than a million people live in the Atacama Desert, which is surprising given that the place is often compared to “hell on earth.” This arid desert is the oldest on Earth and has experienced such conditions for 150 million years. However, scientists believe that its inner core has been hyperarid for 15 million years. This is due to its unique geological composition and atmospheric conditions. For much of the 19th century, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia fought for the right to claim the region because of its rich mineral resources, particularly its sodium nitrate deposits located mostly inland. from Iquique and northeast of Antofagasta. Although most of the sites belonged to Peru and Bolivia, the Chileans and the British controlled the mining industry. Eventually, Chile acquired permanent ownership of the area after the signing of the Treaty of Ancón in 1883. This was a turning point for Chile, and the land acquisition proved important as it helped the country s escape during the economic depression by systematically exploiting nitrate deposits after the middle of the 19th century.
Wildlife in the Atacama Desert
It would be presumptuous to think that since the area witnesses rainfall, it would be devoid of vegetation or animal life. Surprisingly, its coastal areas are teeming with vegetation and wildlife, including llamas, mice, gray foxes, deer, vicunas and alpacas. Colonies of penguins, pelicans, seals and cormorants can be found along the coast. Some birds hover around the area, such as the puna miner, black-throated flower borer, lesser rhea, Tamargo’s beak, Andean swallow, Chile star, and giant humminbird. As for the flora, part of the agriculture is practiced in San Pedro de Atacama. Lemons are grown in Pica; potatoes and alfalfa are grown near Chuquicamata. The permanent residents, however, must be the adapted microbial organisms that only seem to perish if exposed to water.
Tourism in the Atacama Desert
More than 36,000 tourists a year flock from all over the world to witness the magic of this enchanted place. Mainly visiting its three largest coastal cities, Iquique, Arica and Antofagasta, tourists come to experience first-hand the astronomical phenomena and number of desert observatories. Sites include the European Southern Observatory, La Silla Observatory, Paranal Observatory, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Mamalluca Observatory, and Pangue Observatory.
Suppose stargazing is what you’re looking for, well. In this case, the Atacama Desert offers a pleasant year-round cloudless climate and excellent light transparency, attracting photographers who flock to get the perfect shot of its landscape and starry night. If barrenness has ever been considered beautiful, it is indeed because of the Atacama Desert and its enchanting landscape that mesmerizes anyone who looks at it. This Mars lookalike is worth a visit if you ever find yourself in South America. Worthy of a bucket list, the Atacama Desert is a must see that will surely transport you to space without having to qualify as an astronaut.