the

Atacama: The Driest Desert on Earth

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pop quiz which continent has the driest

desert on earth

there are some compelling choices here

africa's massive sahara region or the

kalahari which is a bit further south

the arabian deserts in west asia or the

gobi

in china or mongolia americans might

point the mojave or the sonoran

straddling the border with mexico

they're all good guesses but they're all

wrong

if you're strictly measuring dry regions

the arctic

and antarctic circles both have hyper

arid points that can rival

anywhere on the planet but if you want

to talk about true desert regions the

driest place in the world is an

overlooked

thousand mile long valley in south

america nestled in between two mountain

ranges near the coast

it's the atacama desert and it's the

driest desert on earth

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the atacama desert is located in

southern peru and northern chile in

terms of sheer size

it's a long strip of land about 1 600

kilometers or a thousand miles long

it's established to occupy about 105 000

square kilometers

it's not quite a coastal desert but it

is extremely close to the pacific ocean

falling in the valley between the andes

mountains to the east and the chilean

coastal range to the west

in southern peru the desert areas even

stretch

beyond the mountain range and to the

coast these parts are

increasingly recognized by the national

geographic society and other reputable

organizations as

part of atacama the dueling mountain

ranges play a huge part not only

in atacama's geography and topography

but also

the reason why it's so dry in the first

place the andes are the longest

continuous range of mountains in the

world running from

venezuela all the way down to the

southern tip of south america

they have huge cultural and historical

significance in south america

particularly with the incan civilization

the chilean coastal range or cordillera

de la costa

is a much more regional chain of smaller

mountains but

one that nonetheless plays an important

role in atacama's infamy

to really understand this desert you

have to first understand the concept

of a rain shadow in climatology a rain

shadow is when a mountain range or even

a particularly tall hill

interferes with the basin's ability to

receive rain imagine a rain cloud that

tries to precipitate

on an area but is blocked by a mountain

peak

one side would receive all of the

precipitation growing

lush vegetation on the wet slope the

other side of the mountain however would

consistently receive very little

rainfall at all

that's exactly the effect of the coastal

range that's west of atacama storms blow

in

from the pacific but they mostly rain on

the coastal side of the mountains the

presence of the andes creates a

double-sided rain shadow that

leaves the region in a permanent state

of dryness

the driest portions of the desert

receive less than one inch

of rain per year which is only one of

the many ways to describe the aridity of

the region

scientists love to study the land and

moisture markers in the region one group

of british scientists approximated that

one riverbed has been dry for more than

a hundred thousand years while another

projected that the presence of evaporite

means

that generally arid conditions in the

region have persisted for the last

200 million years in other words that's

since the triassic period

most scientists agree that it's the

longest continuously arid region on

earth

there's another big reason why the

atacama is so dry and

that's the peru current also known as

the humboldt current

this is a cold current of water that

naturally flows north up the western

coast of south america

whereas most tropical waters have high

temperatures around 25 degrees celsius

the humble's current is more like 15

degrees

this is wonderful for fishing the

humboldt waters are one of the liveliest

areas for commercial fishing in the

world but it also produces

unusual climatological results when it

interacts with typical pacific weather

fronts

the colder water is much less conductive

for the creation of rain

it's much more likely to produce coastal

fog rather than

a boisterous thunderstorm so in short

conditions are rarely right

for a good rain and even when they are a

set of parallel mountains shield the

area from receiving anything

these twin forces aren't the best

explanation for why there are some areas

of the atacama desert

where rainfall has literally never been

recorded there's really only one or two

other places on earth that can compete

with atacama

in terms of dryness and those are the

polar deserts specifically

the dry valleys in antarctica record

zero rainfall and

are whipped so dry from katabatic winds

that there's not even

any snow or ice in the area atacama's

driest points rivaled the

dry valleys near the south pole but

since antarctica is not a true desert

the title belt goes to everyone's

favorite south american dry spot

so yes atacama lives up to the hype in

terms of dryness but its actual

temperature might defy your initial

expectations for a desert

it might be a massively dry desert

that's just

south of the equator but the

temperatures here are much more

mediterranean

than mojave the average summer day

temperature is around 27 degrees celsius

or 81 degrees fahrenheit

and that falls down to 61 degrees at

night in higher elevation portions of

the region the mornings evenings and

lights are

actually moderately cool year-round and

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and let's get back to it

so now that you know atacama is the

driest desert on earth

what if i told you that it's the driest

place in the universe

well okay so that's probably not

actually true but the atacama desert is

a unique enough ecosystem that

it attracts wannabe cosmonauts from

every corner of the earth as many 21st

century scientists have turned their

attention to life on mars the atacama

desert has become

a popular place to simulate martian

terrain the thought process goes

something like this

if human scientists are ever going to

find some semblance of life on

a rugged arid rock like mars then

earth's most parallel climate might

serve as an effective proving ground

scientists from all over the world

particularly north america

flock to chile to study and experiment

in what is generally considered the most

inhospitable portions of the atacama

desert where

annual rainfall is virtually

non-existent most of the time scientists

are looking for any sort of eukaryotic

organism they're looking for microbial

life

at or below the surface and studying

effective ways to detect those organisms

nasa for example has a team

called the atacama rover astrobiology

drilling studies team which is usually

referred to as the

arad's team this group spends one month

camping in the atacama desert every year

testing rover equipment to

look for microbes or other signs of life

it's one way the nasa teams can

test their rovers in a realistic alien

environment without having to launch a 2

billion dollar test robot

to explore a region 58 million miles

away

there are dozens of modern science tales

involving the region here's another in

2018 a team of scientists led by

washington state university researcher

dirk schulz mccook

studied how microbial life has adapted

to life in the atacama desert publishing

their results in a journal

called proceedings of the national

academy of sciences upon the group's

initial visitation to the region in 2015

something started happening it rained

schulz-mchook's research group

happened to arrive at one of the only

recorded times in history where the

atacama received rainfall

the group took careful soil samples

observing the living activity within the

ground

years later they came back during a more

typical period of sustained dryness and

observed a more

dormant period of soil life their data

and observations from the atacama

support

a growing theory about life on mars that

millions of years ago

mars had large lakes and small oceans

where life hypothetically

could have existed since then the

surface climate has become hyper-arid

but it's possible

that some extremely small form of life

still exists

under the surface given the status quo

in the atacama desert

schulz smackhook might have said it best

it has always fascinated me to go to the

places where people don't think anything

could possibly survive

and discover that life has somehow found

a way to make it work

jurassic park references aside our

research tells us that

if life can persist in earth's driest

environment

there is a good chance that it could be

hanging in there on mars

in a similar fashion but atacama isn't

only popular with scientists who

are looking to simulate martian terrain

atacama is a very popular side for

astronomical observations too and it's

easy to understand

why when you consider the region it's in

between two mountain ranges which

means there are plenty of opportunities

to build at high altitude the air is dry

and there is generally no cloud cover

there's not much light pollution or

radio interference because

civilization and human impact on the

immediate surrounding land is severely

limited

if you want to gaze out into the abyss

of space there aren't five

better places on earth atacama is

heavily utilized by the european

southern observatory group which has

three major observatories in the area

blessia

paranal and llano dahinator observatory

the latter in particular is a very

significant facility in part because it

hosts the alma international radio

observatory

in 2011 an international coalition of

several factions

including the u.s canada japan europe

and chile teamed up to build a powerful

radio astronomy telescope at

this location which is located on a high

plateau in the atacama desert

alma which stands for atacama large

millimeter array is a 1.4 billion dollar

series of telescopes with an elevation

higher than 5 000 kilometers or 3 miles

alna was a key participant in the event

horizon project that successfully

captured and published the

first ever pictures of a black hole in

2019

there's yet another reason why

scientists love atacama

mummies obviously egypt gets most of the

publicity when talking about preserved

human corpses but

atacama is a sneaky good place for

anthropologists archaeologists and all

kinds of other

wicked smartologists who find preserved

corpses

in ancient egypt mummification and

embalming were just a part of the

culture

society believed that the body had to be

preserved for a soul to

pass on to the correct afterlife so

egyptians developed a keen understanding

of how to

halt a human corpse from entering its

normal decomposition process they would

remove organs chemically treat corpses

and do all other kinds of stuff in order

to preserve the integrity of the body

because

under normal conditions a body will

invariably rot

however we all know that atacama is

special and it's utter lack of humidity

and moisture means that in some cases

corpses

never ever rot they're naturally

mummified this makes atacama a great

place to find perfectly preserved bodies

this phenomenon was most recently in the

news in 2018 a tiny mummified skeleton

had been discovered in the chilean

portion of the atacama desert and

a growing number of locals reddit users

and area 51 chasers believed the

skeleton to be that of an alien

thanks in part to a 2013

extraterrestrial documentary that

references the atacama desert as

potentially proof of alien life

in their defense i mean it does look

pretty weird

and if a martian actually did come to

earth it would make sense that its

remains were discovered in the one place

that

people literally use as a fake martian

landscape

but it wasn't an alien it was just a

perfectly preserved skeleton with traces

of european heritage suggesting that

she lived within the last 500 years but

it was only in 2018 that scientists

confirmed the remains featured human dna

the genetic material also provided an

explanation for why the corpse seemed so

alien in the first place

when she was alive this particular human

had a highly unusual combination of

mutations that

altered her bone development giving her

fewer ribs enlarged eye sockets and

a long pointy skull atacama has long

been home to mummified corpses thanks to

natural and artificial processes

scientists have discovered naturally

mummified atacama corpses that date back

to 7000 bce the chinchoro people an

ancient group who inhabited southern

peru and northern chile also developed

cultural mummification practices similar

to the egyptians the

first artificial chinchiro mummy dates

to 5000 bc or 2 millennia before the

first known egyptian mummy mummies

aliens nasa

camping trips astronomy towers atacama

might be the driest desert in the world

but it sounds like an

awesomely unconventional tourist

attraction but who would want to fly

into a desert death trap like this

well as it turns out a whole lot of

people

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the forces of globalization have been a

boon for the handful of local economies

that do exist in the atacama region the

popularization of eco-tourism in the

late 20th century dramatically increased

consumer interest in a region that

historically speaking

had struggled to support life of any

kind prior to the 1900s atacama was

sparsely settled but it did have one

major economic advantage

mining the twin mountain ranges and

relatively undisturbed landscape

made atacama the best place to mine

potassium nitrate anywhere in the world

potassium nitrate sometimes referred to

as saltpeter is used in a lot of

products as a chemical reagent even

today

historically though it's best known as a

gunpowder oxidizer which meant atacama

was a particularly valuable place to set

up camp and

mine raw materials various mining camps

thrived throughout the region

for generations all the way up until the

development of synthetic nitrates in the

early 20th century

which obsoleted a lot of mining

operations today the desert is littered

with

abandoned remains of more than 150 small

mining camp towns

even though they're ghost towns today

the presence of these mining camps

helped develop the small bits of desert

culture that have

sprung up along the outskirts of the

driest place in the world

in modern times mining operations aren't

as lucrative but there

are still a handful of towns in the area

kopiyapo for instance

is the capital of the atacama region

which is one of the most sparsely

populated of

chile's 16 primary administrative

divisions kopiapo shares a name with an

adjacent valley and a river

actually to be more precise it shares a

name with an adjacent valley and river

bed the river is completely dry now in

part because of the effects of climate

change but mostly just because coppeappo

receives about half an inch of average

annual rainfall

and remember this isn't a neatly

distributed half inch more like a bad

two-inch storm every

four to five years with unbearable

stretches of dry weather in between

in recent years copiapo has struggled

with water scarcity because

the town's series of wells have run dry

the regional water utility drilled six

new wells 180 meters deep

hoping to find new access to the water

table the results have been mixed the

access to water has been greater but at

those depths and at that proximity to

the pacific ocean the water is often

laced with salt and other minerals water

purification tools

are common household necessities for

many local families

still copiapo is a growing town the

population was just north of 10 000 in

1907.

barely a hundred years later it was

pushing 160 000

that's because as dozens and dozens of

phosphate mining towns folded throughout

atacama

capiapo was well positioned with a

broader local operation that focused on

copper and silver

now as tourism interest in the area has

exploded capiapo's economy is more

diversified

an increased hotel presence supports

both chilean and international visitors

who come to explore incan ruins desert

mysteries and

even a brand new casino another area

that's even more popular with tourists

is the small oasis town of san pedro de

atacama this isn't

a bustling locale like kopiapo the town

sits high up on a plateau with a local

population of less than 5000 people

and its modern economy is primarily

driven by international tourism

visitors to saint pedro d'atacama often

need a brief acclamation period upon

arrival because of its altitude this is

a village high up in the andes mountain

at 2 400 metres 7 900 feet it's higher

than mexico city

and more than 1.5 times higher than

denver colorado

the air up there is very thin once

visitors are acclimated though there are

tons of potential activities

amateur astronomy museum tours abandoned

mine shaft tours indigenous crafting

lessons

geezers vantage points and dozens of

hiking trails if you're looking for a

good instagram opportunity atacama has

some

genuinely unique opportunities here

including

wait for it sand boarding and you cannot

tell me that this doesn't look cool

if you're looking for more

unconventional transportation activities

in the desert you can always check out

the all-terrain motor races that take

place out in the desert

have you heard of the bonneville salt

flats in the western united states well

their southern cousin is the uni salt

flats here in atacama which are the

largest salt flats in the world

both of them have seen plenty of

all-terrain auto racing though we

imagine

it's probably an easier trip to utah or

nevada with

your souped-up desert speed racer than

it is all the way down

to northern chile oh let's not leave out

the atacama race that's the volcano

marathon which is a quick 26 mile

jaunt on mostly dirt roads around the

lascar volcano and it's not just an

active volcano it's the most active

volcano in the andes central volcanic

zone but whether you're racing lava from

an active volcano searching for a new

vein of silver or

uncovering a fresh mummy hidden away by

centuries of sand dunes

atacama is a unique location that's

growing in popularity as an

international destination for a reason

there really is no place on this planet

quite like it and

the power of globalization is pulling

more and more tourists towards

an ultra-dry landscape with unique

cultural sceneries

you can keep buying plane tickets to

some marco square and the statue of

liberty if you like

there's a reason the eiffel tower is a

popular attraction but if you're looking

for something that's a little more off

the grid the atacama desert

is definitely out of this world so i

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