The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is the driest in the world, settled between a line of low coastal mountains, the Cordillera de la Costa, and the foothills of the Andes, Cordillera Domeyko. Consisting mostly of salt plains that lend an eerie white cast to the surrounding dunes, the desert is home to such otherworldly landscapes as the Valley of the Moon and the Valley of Mars, so named for their resemblance to planetary surfaces. NASA has even tested Martian rovers here, basing their observations on the similarities between the desert and the lifeless planes of Mars. Atacama itself is certainly not lifeless, although parts of the desert are indeed so arid that no animal or plant life can survive. Iguanas, lava lizards, red scorpions, and other hardy species manage to exist here, but the largest animal group, surprisingly, is the birds. Humboldt penguins live year-round on the coast, and Andean flamingos flock to the salt plains to feast on algae. Species of sparrows and hummingbirds visit seasonally, including the endangered Chilean woodstar.
The region was once home to the Atacameño, an extinct Indian culture, distinct from the Aymara to the north and the Diaguita to the south. The mineral resources of Atacama, in particular deposits of sodium nitrate, were the cause of conflict between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia in the 19th century. The desert stretches roughly into the border of Peru, and much of the area was originally shared between Peru and Bolivia while Chile and British interests controlled the mining industry. Chile's victory in the War of the Pacific granted the nation permanent ownership of Atacama. Until World War I, nitrate deposits were one of the chief sources of Chile’s wealth - the country had a world monopoly on nitrate, and the taxes on its export made up half the government's revenues. After World War I, the development of synthetic methods of fixing nitrogen reduced the market, and nitrate deposits were replaced by copper mining as Atacama's chief source of revenue. Some farming is done in the desert’s river oases, but this supports only a few thousand traditional cultivators. Lemons are grown at Pica, and a variety of products are cultivated on the shores of the salt marshes at San Pedro de Atacama. At Calama, near Chuquicamata, water from the Loa River irrigates potato and alfalfa fields.
10 Facts About The Atacama Desert
1. Driest Desert in the World – Studies conducted by NASA have concluded that this desert located in northern Chile is in fact the driest desert in the world. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama Desert may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
2. Rainless (or just about) – Average rainfall in this region is about 1 mm per year. Some locations within the desert have never had any rainfall whatsoever. Geographically, the aridity of the Atacama is explained by it being situated between two mountain chains (the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range) of sufficient height to prevent moisture advection from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans, a two-sided rain shadow.
3. Sterile Ground – Both the Andes Mountains and the Chilean Costal Range, which surround this desert, create a blockage of moisture, making the Atacama Desert a kind of death zone for vegetation, depriving the land of water and nutrients.
4. Largest Supply of Sodium Nitrate in the World – This region is the largest natural supply of Sodium Nitrate, which can be used for producing fertilizers and explosives amongst other things. Mining of this mineral, also called Chile saltpeter, was at a boom in the 1940s and many abandoned mining towns may be spotted and visited in the desert.
5. Extra Terrestrial Soil – Soil samples from this region are very similar to samples from Mars; for this reason, NASA uses this desert for testing instruments for missions to the red planet. The Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program. The Atacama has also been used as a location for filming Mars scenes, most notably in the television series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets.
6. Land Dispute – In the late 1800s, Chile and Bolivia disputed this land in the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific) because both countries claimed to be rightful owners of this region that had a huge mining potential. At the end of the war Chile took control of the entire region.
7. Extreme Temperatures – During the day, temperatures in the desert can reach around 104º F, and in the night these temperatures can fall to 41º F. The climate is magnificent throughout the year, with more than 90% of the days being radiant. For 10 to 12 nights each month there is an astonishing moon and you can enjoy the darkness of the night with its fresh air and lack of clouds, which makes the stars shine as in no other place on earth.
8. Chinchorro Mummies – The oldest artificially mummified human remains have been found in the Atacama Desert. These mummies predate the Egyptian mummies by thousands of years, and the extreme lack of moisture helps in the preservation of these samples. To put this into perspective, the earliest mummy that has been found in Egypt dated around 3000 BC, while the oldest mummy recovered from the Atacama Desert is dated around 7020 BC.
9. Presence of Snow – Despite this being the driest desert in the world and the high temperatures during the day, the high peaks present are topped with snow. This is possible due to the altitude, which does not allow temperatures in these points to increase much.
10. Astronomy – The Atacama Desert is one of few locations on the globe with 300+ days with clear skies in a year, along with no light pollution and its high altitude, making it perhaps the best place in the world for observatories. In more recent years, the desert has become the home of the largest ground telescope in the world, ALMA, where studies of the formation of stars are conducted with the help of the images captured by the 66 radio telescopes.