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Atacama Desert

Atacama redirects here; for the political-administrative region of Chile, see Atacama Region.

The Atacama Desert is a virtually rainless plateau in South America, extending 966 km (600 mi) between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is created by the rain shadow of the Andes east of the desert. Its area is 181,300 square kilometers , in northern Chile. It is made up of salt basins (salares), sand and lava flows, and is 15 million years old and 50 times more arid than California's Death Valley.


The Atacama desert ecoregion, as defined by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), extends from a few kilometers south of the Chile-Peru border to about 30 south latitude. To the north lies the Sechura Desert ecoregion, which is located predominantly in Peru with a small portion lying in Chile, whilst to the south is the Chilean Matorral ecoregion. To the east lies the less arid Central Andean dry puna ecoregion. The drier portion of this ecoregion is located south of the Loa River and west of the Cordillera Domeyko. To the north of the mentioned river lies the Pampa del Tamarugal.

Driest desert

See also: climate of Chile

The Atacama Desert is the driest non-Arctic place on Earth, and is virtually sterile because it is blocked from moisture on both sides by the Andes mountains and by the Chilean Coast Range. The cold Humboldt Current and the anticyclone of the Pacific are essential to keep the dry climate of Atacama Desert. The average rainfall in the Chilean region of Antofagasta is just 1 mm per year. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. It is so arid that mountains that reach as high as 6,885 metres are completely free of glaciers and, in the southern part from 25S to 27S, may have been glacier-free throughout the Quaternary — though permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 metres and is continuous above 5,600 metres. Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.

Some locations in the Atacama do receive a marine fog known locally as the Camanchaca, providing sufficient moisture for hypolithic algae, lichens and even some cacti. But in the region that is in the "fog shadow" of the high coastal crest-line, which averages 3,000 m height for about 100 km south of Antofagasta, the soil has been compared to that of Mars. Due to its otherworldly appearance, the Atacama has been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series [[Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets]].

In 2003, a team of researchers published a report in Science magazine titled "Mars-like Soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the Dry Limit of Microbial Life" in which they duplicated the tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect life, and were unable to detect any signs in Atacama Desert soil. The region may be unique on Earth in this regard and is being used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions. Alonso de Ercilla characterized it in La Araucana, published in 1569: "Towards Atacama, near the deserted coast, you see a land without men, where there is not a bird, not a beast, nor a tree, nor any vegetation" (quoted Braudel 1984 p 388).

Human occupation

The Atacama is sparsely populated. In an oasis, in the middle of the desert, at about 2000 meters elevation, lies the village of San Pedro de Atacama. Its church was built by the Spanish in 1577. In pre-hispanic times, before the Inca empire, the super-arid interior was inhabited mainly by the Atacameno tribe. It is most notable for the construction of fortified towns called pucara(s), one of which can be seen a few miles from San Pedro de Atacama.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when under the Spanish Empire towns grew along the coast shipping ports for silver produced in Potosi and other mines.

During the 19th century the desert came under control of Bolivia, Chile and Peru and soon became a conflictive zone due to unclear borders and the discovery of nitrate there. After the War of the Pacific in which Chile annexed most of the desert, cities in the zone grew into big international ports, and many Chilean workers migrated there.

The Escondida Mine and Chuquicamata are also located within the Atacama Desert.

The Pan-American Highway runs through the Atacama in a north-south trajectory.

Astronomic observatories

Because of its high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, and lack of light pollution and radio interference from the very widely spaced cities, the desert is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. The European Southern Observatory operates two major observatories in the Atacama:

The La Silla Observatory

The Paranal Observatory, which includes the Very Large Telescope.

A new radio astronomy observatory, called ALMA, is being built in the Atacama by astronomers from Europe, Japan, and North America. Another radio astronomy observatory, ACT, is being built on Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert.

Abandoned nitrate mining towns

The desert has rich deposits of copper and other minerals, and the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate, which was mined on a large scale until the early 1940s. The Atacama border dispute over these resources between Chile and Bolivia began in the 1800s.

Now the desert is littered with approximately 170 abandoned nitrate (or "saltpeter") mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate in Germany at the turn of the 20th century (see Haber Process). The towns include Chacabuco, Humberstone, Santa Laura, Pedro de Valdivia, Puelma, Maria Elena and Oficina Anita.

One of the best examples of an abandoned mining town is that of Baquedano, which is home to one of the most technologically advanced train stations during the nitrate "white gold" boom of the early 20th century. While it is now almost completely abandoned, the remains of the station are untouched and seldom visited by outsiders. Only a few kilometers from Baquedano, on the Pan-American highway, is one of many makeshift cemeteries housing the remains of indigenous miners who were persuaded to work for the German mining operations. Within the confines of the cemetery walls one can judge for themselves just how humane these operations were. Many of the graves belong to children under the age of five, poisoned by the pollution kicked up during the mining process. Fifty years of wind erosion has made this site not for the faint of heart.

Protected areas

Pan de Azucar National Park

Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve

La Chimba National Reserve




Atacama Giant


Braudel, Fernand, The Perspective of the World, ISBN 0520081161, vol. III of Civilization and Capitalism 1984 .

Sagaris, Lake. ''Bone and dream : into the world's driest desert''. 1st ed. -- Toronto : A.A. Knopf Canada, c2000. ISBN 0676972233

See also

Norte Grande, Chile

Atacama Crossing

Atacama border dispute

Salar de Atacama

List of deserts by area

Topography and Toponomy of the Atacama Desert

External links

SanPedrodeAtacama.Net & Org

News article on "Mars-like Soils in the Atacama Desert, Chile, and the Dry Limit of Microbial Life"

National Geographic feature about Atacama

Autonomous Robot Finds Life in Atacama Desert

Atacama's Super-Dry History

Web Site of the San Pedro de Atacama

Atacama Photo Gallery - incredible images of Atacama landscapes, flora and fauna

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Atacama Desert

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