The Atacama Desert (Spanish: Desierto de Atacama) is a desert plateau in South America covering a 1000-km (600-mi) strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. The Atacama desert is one of the driest places in the world (the driest being the McMurdo Dry Valleys ) , as well as the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts. According to estimates, the Atacama Desert occupies 105,000 km2 (41,000 sq mi), or 128,000 km2 (49,000 sq mi) if the barren lower slopes of the Andes are included. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.
The desert owes its extreme aridity to a constant temperature inversion due to the cool north-flowing Humboldt ocean current, and to the presence of the strong Pacific anticyclone. The most arid region of the Atacama desert is 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.
Atacama by NASA World Wind
|Area||105,000 km2 (41,000 sq mi)|
According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Atacama Desert ecoregion occupies a continuous strip for nearly 1,600 km along the narrow coast of the northern third of Chile, from near Arica (18°24'S) southward to near La Serena (29°55'S). The National Geographic Society considers the coastal area of southern Peru to be part of the Atacama Desert and also includes the deserts south of the Ica Region in Peru.
Peru borders it on the north and the Chilean Matorral ecoregion borders it on the south. 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 between the parallel Sierra Vicuña Mackenna and Cordillera Domeyko. To the north of the Loa lies the Pampa del Tamarugal.
The Coastal Cliff of northern Chile west of the Chilean Coast Range is the main topographical feature of the coast. The geomorphology of the Atacama Desert has been characterized as a low-relief bench "similar to a giant uplifted terrace" by Armijo and co-workers. The intermediate depression (or Central Valley) forms a series of endorheic basins in much of Atacama Desert south of latitude 19°30'S. North of this latitude, the intermediate depression drains into the Pacific Ocean.
Although the almost total lack of precipitation is the most prominent characteristic of the Atacama Desert, exceptions may occur. In July 2011, an extreme Antarctic cold front broke through the rain shadow, bringing 80 cm (31 in) of snow to the plateau, stranding residents across the region, particularly in Bolivia, where many drivers became stuck in snow drifts and emergency crews became overtaxed with a large number of rescue calls.
On 25 March 2015, heavy rainfall affected the southern part of the Atacama Desert. Resulting floods triggered mudflows that affected the cities of Copiapo, Tierra Amarilla, Chanaral, and Diego de Almagro, causing the deaths of more than 100 people.
The Atacama Desert is commonly known as the driest nonpolar place in the world, especially the surroundings of the abandoned Yungay town (in Antofagasta Region, Chile). The average rainfall is about 15 mm (0.6 in) per year, although some locations, such as Arica and Iquique, receive 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 in) in a year. Moreover, some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Periods up to four years have been registered with no rainfall in the central sector, delimited by the cities of Antofagasta, Calama, and Copiapó, in Chile. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971.
The Atacama Desert may be the oldest desert on earth, and has experienced extreme hyperaridity for at least 3 million years, making it the oldest continuously arid region on earth. The long history of aridity raises the possibility that supergene mineralisation, under the appropriate conditions, can form in arid environments, instead of requiring humid conditions. The presence of evaporite formations suggest that in some sections of the Atacama Desert, arid conditions have persisted for the last 200 million years (since the Triassic).
The Atacama is so arid that many mountains higher than 6,000 m (20,000 ft) are completely free of glaciers. Only the highest peaks (such as Ojos del Salado, Monte Pissis, and Llullaillaco) have some permanent snow coverage.
The southern part of the desert, between 25 and 27°S, may have been glacier-free throughout the Quaternary (including during glaciations), though permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 m (14,400 ft) and is continuous above 5,600 m (18,400 ft). Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years. However, some locations in the Atacama receive a marine fog known locally as the camanchaca, providing sufficient moisture for hypolithic algae, lichens, and even some cacti—the genus Copiapoa is notable among these.
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.
In a region about 100 km (60 mi) south of Antofagasta, which averages 3,000 m (10,000 ft) in elevation, the soil has been compared to that of Mars. Owing 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 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 in the region of Yungay. The region may be unique on Earth in this regard, and is being used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions. The team duplicated the Viking tests in Mars-like Earth environments and found that they missed present signs of life in soil samples from Antarctic dry valleys, the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru, and other locales. However, in 2014, a new hyperarid site was reported, María Elena South, which was much drier than Yungay, and thus, a better Mars-like environment.
In 2008, the Phoenix Mars Lander detected perchlorates on the surface of Mars at the same site where water was first discovered. Perchlorates are also found in the Atacama and associated nitrate deposits have contained organics, leading to speculation that signs of life on Mars are not incompatible with perchlorates. The Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth–Mars Cave Detection Program.
In spite of the geographic and climatic conditions of the desert, a rich variety of flora has evolved there. Over 500 species have been gathered within the border of this desert. These species are characterized by their extraordinary ability to adapt to this extreme environment. Most common species are the herbs and flowers such as thyme, llareta, and saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and where humidity is sufficient, trees such as the chañar (Geoffroea decorticans), the pimiento tree, and the leafy algarrobo (Prosopis chilensis).
The llareta is one of the highest-growing wood species in the world. It is found at altitudes between 3,000 and 5,000 m (9,800 and 16,400 ft). Its dense form is similar to a pillow some 3 to 4 m (9.8 to 13.1 ft) thick. It concentrates and retains the heat from the day to cope with low evening temperatures. The growth rate of the llareta has been recently estimated at about 1.5 cm per year, making many llaretas over 3,000 years old. It produces a much-prized resin, which the mining industry once harvested indiscriminately as fuel, making this plant endangered.
The desert is also home to cacti, succulents, and other plants that thrive in a dry climate. Cactus species here include the candelabro (Browningia candelaris) and cardon (Echinopsis atacamensis), which can reach a height of 7 m (23 ft) and a diameter of 70 cm (28 in).
The climate of the Atacama Desert limits the number of animals living permanently in this extreme ecosystem. Some parts of the desert are so arid, no plant or animal life can survive. Outside of these extreme areas, sand-colored grasshoppers blend with pebbles on the desert floor, and beetles and their larvae provide a valuable food source in the lomas (hills). Desert wasps and butterflies can be found during the warm and humid season, especially on the lomas. Red scorpions also live in the desert.
A unique environment is provided by some lomas, where the fog from the ocean provides enough moisture for seasonal plants and a few animal species. Surprisingly few reptile species inhabit the desert and even fewer amphibian species. Chaunus atacamensis, the Vallenar toad or Atacama toad, lives on the lomas, where it lays eggs in permanent ponds or streams. Iguanas and lava lizards inhabit parts of the desert, while salt flat lizards, Liolaemus, live in the dry areas bordering the ocean. One species, Liolaemus fabiani, is endemic to the Salar de Atacama, the Atacama salt flat.
Birds are probably the largest animal group in the Atacama. Humboldt penguins live year-round along the coast, nesting in desert cliffs overlooking the ocean. On salt flats both near the Pacific and inland, Andean flamingos flock to eat algae. Other birds (including species of hummingbirds and sparrows) visit the lomas seasonally to feed on insects, nectar, seeds, and flowers. The lomas help sustain several threatened species, such as the endangered Chilean woodstar.
Because of the desert's extreme aridity, only a few specially adapted mammal species live in the Atacama, such as Darwin's leaf-eared mouse. The less arid parts of the desert are inhabited by the South American gray fox and the viscacha (a relative of the chinchilla). Larger animals, such as guanacos and vicuñas, graze in areas where grass grows, mainly because it is seasonally irrigated by melted snow. Vicuñas need to remain near a steady water supply, while guanacos can roam into more arid areas and survive longer without fresh water. Seals and sea lions often gather along the coast.
The Atacama is sparsely populated, with most towns located along the Pacific coast. In interior areas, oases and some valleys have been populated for millennia and were the location of the most advanced pre-Columbian societies found in Chile.
The Chinchorro culture developed in the Atacama Desert area from 7,000 to 1,500 BCE. These peoples were sedentary fishermen inhabiting mostly coastal areas. Their presence is found from today's towns of Ilo, in southern Peru, to Antofagasta in northern Chile. Presence of fresh water in the arid region on the coast facilitated human settlement in these areas. The Chinchorro were famous for their detailed mummification and funerary practices.
In later times, the Atacama oases experienced little population growth and urban development. During the 20th century, they have had conflicts over water resources with the coastal cities and the mining industry.
San Pedro de Atacama, at about 2,400 m (8,000 ft) elevation, is like many of the small towns. Before the Inca empire and prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the extremely arid interior was inhabited primarily by the Atacameño tribe. They are noted for building fortified towns called pucarás, one of which is located a few kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama. The town's church was built by the Spanish in 1577.
The coastal cities originated in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries during the time of the Spanish Empire, when they emerged as shipping ports for silver produced in Potosí and other mining centers. During the 19th century, the desert came under control of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. With the discovery of sodium nitrate deposits and as a result of unclear borders, the area soon became a zone of conflict and resulted in the War of the Pacific. Chile annexed most of the desert, and cities along the coast developed into international ports, hosting many Chilean workers who migrated there.
With the guano and saltpeter booms of the 19th century, the population grew immensely, mostly as a result of immigration from central Chile. In the 20th century, the nitrate industry declined and at the same time, the largely male population of the desert became increasingly problematic for the Chilean state. Miners and mining companies came into conflict, and protests spread throughout the region.
The desert has rich deposits of copper and other minerals and the world's largest natural supply of sodium nitrate (Chile saltpeter), 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 19th century and resulted in the War of the Pacific.
The desert is littered with about 170 abandoned nitrate (or "saltpeter") mining towns, almost all of which were shut down decades after the invention of synthetic nitrate in Germany in the first decade of the 20th century (see Haber process). The towns include Chacabuco, Humberstone, Santa Laura, Pedro de Valdivia, Puelma, María Elena, and Oficina Anita.
The Atacama Desert is rich in metallic mineral resources such as copper, gold, silver and iron, as well as nonmetallic minerals including important deposits of boron, lithium, sodium nitrate, and potassium salts. The Salar de Atacama is where bischofite is extracted. These resources are exploited by various mining companies such as Codelco, Lomas Bayas, Mantos Blancos, and Soquimich.
Because of its high altitude, nearly nonexistent cloud cover, dry air, and lack of light pollution and radio interference from widely populated cities and towns, this 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:
A new radio astronomy telescope, called the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, built by European countries, Japan, the United States, Canada, and Chile in the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory officially opened on 3 October 2011. A number of radio astronomy projects, such as the CBI, the ASTE and the ACT, among others, have been operating in the Chajnantor area since 1999.
The Atacama Desert is popular with all-terrain sports enthusiasts. Various championships have taken place here, including the Lower Atacama Rally, Lower Chile Rally, Patagonia-Atacama Rally, and the latter Dakar Rally's editions. The rally was organized by the Amaury Sport Organisation and held in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012. The dunes of the desert are ideal rally races located in the outskirts of the city of Copiapó. The 2013 Dakar 15-Day Rally started on 5 January in Lima, Peru, through Chile, Argentina and back to Chile finishing in Santiago. Visitors also use the Atacama Desert sand dunes for sandboarding (Spanish: duna).
A week-long foot race called the Atacama Crossing has the competitors cross the various landscapes of the Atacama.
Eighteen solar powered cars were displayed in front of the presidential palace (La Moneda) in Santiago in November 2012. The cars were then raced 1,300 km (810 mi) through the desert from 15–19 November 2012.
Most people who go to tour the sites in the desert stay in the town of San Pedro de Atacama. The Atacama Desert is in the top three tourist locations in Chile. The specially commissioned ESO hotel is reserved for astronomers.
About 80 geysers occur in a valley about 80 km from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. They are closer to the town of Chiu Chiu.
The Baños de Puritama are rock pools which are 37 miles from the geysers.
The Atacama B-Mode Search (ABS) was an experiment to test the theory of cosmic inflation and distinguish between inflationary models of the very early universe by making precise measurements of the polarization of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). ABS was located at a high-altitude site in the Atacama Desert of Chile as part of the Parque Astronómico de Atacama. ABS began observations in February 2012 and completed observations in October 2014.Atacama Cosmology Telescope
The Atacama Cosmology Telescope (ACT) is a six-metre telescope on Cerro Toco in the Atacama Desert in the north of Chile, near the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory. It is designed to make high-resolution, microwave-wavelength surveys of the sky in order to study the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB). At an altitude of 5,190 metres (17,030 ft), it is one of the highest permanent, ground-based telescopes in the world.Erected in the (austral) autumn of 2007, ACT saw first light on 22 October 2007 with its science receiver, the Millimeter Bolometer Array Camera (MBAC), and completed its first season in December 2007. It began its second season of observations in June 2008.
The project is a collaboration between Princeton University, Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, NASA/GSFC, the Johns Hopkins University, the University of British Columbia, NIST, the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Cardiff University, Rutgers University, the University of Pittsburgh, Columbia University, Haverford College, West Chester University, INAOE, LLNL, NASA/JPL, the University of Toronto, the University of Cape Town, the University of Massachusetts Amherst and York College, CUNY. It is funded by the US National Science Foundation.Atacama Fault
The Atacama Fault Zone (AFZ) is an extensive system of faults cutting across the Chilean Coastal Cordillera in Northern Chile between the Andean Mountain range and the Pacific Ocean. The fault system is North-South striking and runs for more than 1100 km North and up to 50 km in width through the Andean forearc region. The zone is a direct result of the ongoing subduction of the Eastward moving Nazca Plate beneath the South American Plate and is believed to have formed in the Early Jurassic during the beginnings of the Andean orogeny. The zone can be split into 3 regions: the North, Central and South.Atacama Region
This article is about the Atacama Region; for the desert, see Atacama Desert.The Atacama Region (Spanish: Región de Atacama, pronounced [ataˈkama]) is one of Chile's 16 first order administrative divisions. It comprises three provinces: Chañaral, Copiapó and Huasco. It is bordered to the north by Antofagasta, to the south by Coquimbo, to east with Provinces of Catamarca, La Rioja and San Juan of Argentina, and to the west by the Pacific Ocean. The regional capital Copiapó is located at 806 km (501 mi) north of the country's capital of Santiago. The region occupies the southern portion of the Atacama Desert, the rest of the desert is mainly distributed among the other regions of Norte GrandeAtacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment
The Atacama Submillimeter Telescope Experiment (ASTE) is a 10m antenna built by Mitsubishi Electric as a preprototype for ALMA.
The ASTE was deployed to its site on Pampa La Bola, near Cerro Chajnantor and the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in northern Chile. The antenna shows excellent performance including a surface accuracy of 19 μm (0.00075 in) r.m.s. The telescope is remotely controllable from multiple sites through satellite connections and the Internet. It is operated by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan and the University of Tokyo, Nagoya University, and Osaka Prefecture University, in cooperation with the Universidad de Chile.Atacama people
The Atacama people, known as atacameños or atacamas in Spanish and kunzas, Likan-antai or Likanantaí in English, are an indigenous people from the Atacama Desert and altiplano region in the north of Chile and Argentina and southern Bolivia.
According to the Argentinean Census in 2010, 13,936 people identified as first-generation Atacameño in Argentina, while Chile was home to 21,015 Atacameño people as of 2002.Atacama skeleton
Ata is the common name given to the 6-inch (15 cm) long skeletal remains of a human fetus found in 2003 in a deserted Chilean town in the Atacama Desert. DNA analysis done in 2018 on the premature human fetus identified unusual mutations associated with dwarfism and scoliosis, though these findings were later disputed. The remains were found by Oscar Muñoz, who later sold them; the current owner is Ramón Navia-Osorio, a Spanish businessman.Atacamatitan
Atacamatitan (meaning "Atacama Desert titan") is a genus of sauropod dinosaur. It is a titanosaur which lived during the late Cretaceous in what is now northern Chile. It is known from the holotype SGO-PV-961, which includes two dorsal vertebrae, caudal vertebrae, ribs, a possible sternum, part of an upper arm, the right femur, and unidentified incomplete bones. This specimen was found in the Tolar Formation. The discovery locality is near Conchi Viejo town, Atacama Desert in Antofagasta Region. It was named by Alexander W.A. Kellner, David Rubilar-Rogers, Alexander Vargas and Mario Suárez in 2011 and the type species is Atacamatitan chilensis. The specific epithet chilensis refers to Chile.Chacabuco
Chacabuco is one of the many abandoned nitrate or "saltpeter" towns ("oficinas salitreras" in Spanish) in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Other nitrate towns of the Atacama Desert include Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works. Unlike most of the other ghost towns in the Atacama Desert, Chacabuco became a concentration camp during the Pinochet regime in 1973. To this day, it remains surrounded by approximately 98 lost landmines, left by the Chilean military when Chacabuco was used as a prison camp.Desierto de Atacama Airport
Desierto de Atacama Airport (IATA: CPO, ICAO: SCAT) is an airport serving the region around Copiapó, the capital of the Atacama Region of Chile. The airport is in the desert north of the Copiapó River, 16 kilometres (9.9 mi) inland from the Pacific coast.
The Atacama VOR-DME (Ident: DAT) is located 0.5 nautical miles (0.9 km) off the approach threshold of Runway 35.Imilac
Imilac is a pallasite meteorite found in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile in 1822.Iquique
Iquique (Spanish pronunciation: [iˈkike]) is a port city and commune in northern Chile, capital of both the Iquique Province and Tarapacá Region. It lies on the Pacific coast, west of the Pampa del Tamarugal, which is part of the Atacama Desert. It had a population of 191,468 according to the 2017 census. It is also the main commune of Greater Iquique. The city developed during the heyday of the saltpetre mining in the Atacama Desert in the 19th century. Once a Peruvian city with a large Chilean population, it was conquered by Chile in the War of the Pacific (1879–1883). Today it is one of only two free ports of Chile, the other one being Punta Arenas, in the country's far south.Kunza language
Kunza a.k.a. Cunza, also known as Likanantaí, Lipe, Ulipe, or Atacameño, is an extinct language isolate once spoken in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile and southern Perú (specifically in Peine, Socaire (Salar de Atacama), and Caspana) by the Lickan-antay people, who have since shifted to Spanish.
The last Kunza speaker was found in 1949, although some have been found since according to anthropologists. There are 2,000 Atacameños (W. Adelaar).
Kaufman (1990) found a proposed connection between Kunza and the likewise unclassified Kapixaná to be plausible; however, when that language was more fully described in 2004, it turned out to be an isolate.
Kunza contains a typical 5-vowel inventory: /a, e, i, o, u/. All vowels have long counterparts, and Kunza displays contrastive vowel length.La Silla Observatory
La Silla Observatory is an astronomical observatory in Chile with three telescopes built and operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Several other telescopes are located at the site and are partly maintained by ESO. The observatory is one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere and was the first in Chile to be used by ESO.The La Silla telescopes and instruments are located 150 km northeast of La Serena at the outskirts of the Chilean Atacama Desert, one of the driest and most remote areas of the world. Like other observatories in this geographical area, La Silla is located far from sources of light pollution and, like the Paranal Observatory, home to the Very Large Telescope, it has one of the darkest night skies on the Earth.Monte Desert
The Monte Desert is a South American ecoregion, lying entirely within Argentina and covering approximately the submontane areas of Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan, San Luis and Mendoza Provinces, plus the western half of La Pampa Province and the extreme north of Río Negro Province. The desert lies southeast of the Atacama Desert in Chile, north of the larger Patagonian Desert, east of the Andes and west of the Sierra de Córdoba.Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve
Pampa del Tamarugal National Reserve is a nature reserve of northern Chile's Tarapacá Region located in the Pampa del Tamarugal, about 70 km (43 mi) east of Iquique.
The reserve consists of three separate sectors: Zapiga, Bosque Nativo de La Tirana, and Pintados. The major highlights are the artificially planted forests of the genus Prosopis (primarily Prosopis tamarugo), found in the middle of a rainless desert, and the Pintados geoglyphs.
The total protected area extends on more than 102,264 hectares.
The sectors of Zapiga and Pintados are crossed by the Pan-American Highway and Sector Bosque Nativo de La Tirana can be accessed from A-665 Route.Pan de Azúcar National Park
Pan de Azúcar National Park is a national park of Chile. The park straddles the border between the Antofagasta Region and the Atacama Region. Its name, Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, means "sugar loaf national park".Paranal Observatory
Paranal Observatory is an astronomical observatory operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO); it is located in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile on Cerro Paranal at 2,635 m (8,645 ft) altitude, 120 km (70 mi) south of Antofagasta. By total light-collecting area, it is the largest optical-infrared observatory in the Southern Hemisphere; worldwide, it is second to the Mauna Kea Observatory on Hawaii.
The Very Large Telescope (VLT), the largest telescope on Paranal, is composed of four separate 8.2 m (320 in) telescopes. In addition, the four main telescopes can combine their light to make a fifth instrument, the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). Four auxiliary telescopes of 1.8 m (71 in) each are also part of the VLTI to make it available when the main telescopes are being used for other projects.
The site also houses two survey telescopes with wide fields of view, the 4.0 m (160 in) VISTA and the 2.6 m (100 in) VLT Survey Telescope for surveying large areas of the sky; and two arrays of small telescopes called NGTS and SPECULOOS which are dedicated to searching for exoplanets.
Two major new facilities are under construction nearby: the southern part of the Cherenkov Telescope Array gamma-ray telescope (not owned by ESO) will be sited in the grounds 10 km south-east of Paranal; while ESO's future E-ELT will be on the nearby peak of Cerro Armazones 20 km east of Paranal, and will share some of the base facilities.Puna de Atacama
The Puna de Atacama or Atacama Plateau is an arid high plateau, in the Andes of northern Chile (15%) and Argentina (85%). Geomorphologist Walther Penck based his Grossfalt landform association on Puna de Atacama.