20 Interesting Facts About the Atacama Desert

  1. The Atacama Desert is an arid region in northern Chile. This coastal desert generally lies between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains.
  2. The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world, having an annual rainfall of 0.03 inches. It is the only true desert that receives less rainfall than polar deserts. Due to its arid atmosphere, scientists consider it a valuable place to find clues about life on other planets. (Source)
  3. The hyper-arid core of the Atacama Desert did not receive rain for 500 years. After the first recorded rainfall during the 21st Century, the desert lost nearly 85% of its indigenous microbial species. This event can provide information about the effects of precipitation on Mars and other hyper-arid planets. (Source)
  4. In 2023, scientists discovered a “dark microbiome” in the Atacama while testing scientific instruments designed for Mars. These microorganisms are either non-existent on other parts of Earth or have lost their relatives in the past. (Source)
  5. Humans initially inhabited the Atacama Desert around 10,000 B.C. at the end of the glacial era. During this period, there were large lakes and rivers in this region.
  6. Bolivia and Peru had controlled most parts of this desert before the 1880s. However, a conflict emerged between Chile and these two countries when they discovered large deposits of minerals, particularly sodium nitrate, in this area during the 19th Century. Later, Chile captured the entire Atacama Desert after defeating both countries in the War of the Pacific (1879-83).
  7. Peru (or Humboldt) current of the Pacific Ocean makes it an arid and foggy place. The Atacama Desert is the largest fog desert in the world. 
    Satellite image of the Atacama Desert
    Pacific Ocean makes Atacama a fog desert

  8. The Atacama Desert is unique among arid lands due to its abundance of sodium nitrate and other saline minerals. The mining of this salt has continued since the mid-19th Century for fertilizer and explosives. Chile provided 3 million metric tons of this mineral from the Atacama Desert during World War 1. (Source)
  9. The Atacama Desert contains salts present nowhere else on Earth. Scientists have discovered three sources behind their existence. These minerals are present due to sea spray from the Pacific Ocean, formation through thin air, and leaching of materials from the Andes Mountains due to the falling of rain for millions of years. (Source)
  10. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the best places for star gazing due to the almost complete absence of precipitation and light pollution and over 200 cloudless lights per year. Several American and European astronomers have observatories in this desert due to these features. (Source)
  11. Salar de Atacama, a salt flat in the Atacama Desert, is one of the largest sources of lithium (used in rechargeable batteries) in the world. This vast (3,000 sq. km) salt flat also contains a significant amount of potassium, magnesium, boron, and sodium chloride. (Source)
  12. The Atacama Desert contains rich deposits of industrial materials, including copper, gold, silver, etc. The most famous is copper due to the presence of the world’s largest and second-deepest open-pit copper mine. The annual production of copper from this mine is 650,000 metric tons. (Source)
  13. Despite its harsh climate, more than 1 million people live in the Atacama Desert. Many of these inhabit large coastal cities: Antofagasta, Arica, and Iquique. Thousands of tourists also visit this desert annually.
  14. The Chinchorro were the initial inhabitants of the Atacama Desert. They were also the first to mummify their dead 7,000 years ago, around 5,000 BCE. Thousands of mummies have been discovered from the Atacama Desert so far. (Source)
  15. Archeologists discovered several naturally mummified leaf-eared mice on the summit of volcanoes in the Atacama Desert in 2020 and later. Their discovery proved that small mammals can tolerate this Mars-like environment for a long duration. (Source)
  16. Researchers discovered mummified Amazon parrots and scarlet macaws from the Atacama Desert in 2021. Later studies proved that local people transported these parrots from the Amazon Rainforest to this desert between 1100 and 1450 due to their feathers. (Source)
  17. In 2013, a treasure hunter found a tiny mummified corpse in the Atacama Desert. Many people believed it to be an alien due to an unusual head. However, genetic analysis proved in 2018 that the mummy belongs to a female premature baby with a hereditary disease. (Source)
  18. “Hand of the Desert” is a strange monument in the Atacama Desert. This giant hand of concrete and iron, constructed by a Chilean sculptor in 1992, is nearly 11 meters (36 feet) tall. A similar hand is present in Uruguay near the Atlantic Ocean.
  19. Colorful wildflowers bloom in the Atacama Desert after every three to ten years. The desert has experienced 15 super blooms in the past 40 years between September and mid-November. The Chilean government has now established a national park to preserve the ecosystem of this area. (Source)
  20. There are several attractions in the Atacama Desert for tourists. These include snow-capped volcanoes, hot geysers (in El Tatio), salt flats, beautiful lagoons, and animals such as pink flamingos, Humboldt penguins, and vicunas.

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