20 Surprising Facts About The Driest Place On Earth ‘The Atacama Desert’

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest deserts in the world. The dried land is a desert stretching for more than 104,000 square kilometers to the Pacific coast of South America in Chile, between two mountain ranges: The Andes and The Chilean. The Atacama Desert is roughly 120 miles from east to west with the highest part reaching 6500 meters. Due to the coastal fog that descends into valleys during certain parts of the year, this region experiences low precipitation, and dryness due to it being an arid desert climate.

In fact, an average desert has less than one-tenth of the water that a rain forest does. The extreme conditions of the deserts create amazing landscapes and wildlife. Let’s start with the most amazing fact about Atacama Desert.

1 Astronomy

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The best place to be able to view the stars in the world is at the Atacama Desert. For anyone who loves stargazing, this is an ideal destination for them.

The sky over the Atacama Desert is incredibly clear, and you can see far into space with the naked eye or even a small telescope so this is only the reason astronomers chose Atacama for studying.

Since the desert has a lack of light pollution and plenty of high altitude, the Atacama Desert is one of few locations with 300+ days of clear skies a year. Furthermore, since there are no city lights, the Atacama Desert is an ideal spot for astronomy. As part of its construction, the largest ground telescope in the world has been installed: ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). This allows astronomers to study stars formation and more with 66 radio telescopes.

And one another reason is that The Atacama Desert sought to resemble the surface of Mars so it is used as training grounds for astronauts.

2 Oppressive Temperature

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

As well as being hot, deserts are well known for having extremes in temperatures, making them uninhabitable or hazardous places too and extremely dangerous for those who explore them without being prepared.

Desert climates have a temperature average of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and can drop below 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit) at night. On average, 10 to 12 nights a month the moon is fully visible and it provides an exciting experience of experiencing the night without the clouds. In no other place on Earth, you can enjoy the darkness of night with its fresh air and a lack of clouds, which makes the stars shine like never before.

3 Presence of Snow

Snow On Atacama Desert

Atacama is the driest desert on Earth and features scorching temperatures, the high mountain peaks stay covered with snow. This is possible due to their altitude, which keeps the temperature low to prevent snow from melting.

One another reason for the presence of snow on the Atacama Desert “This snowfall” occurs due to high pressure systems that form over the Andes Mountains. These systems cause air to circulate very slowly and prevent cold air from moving into the region. This results in rain clouds forming over the mountains and occasionally dumping snow into parts of the desert and here’s climates are completely different.

4 Largest Supply of Sodium Nitrate

Sodium Nitrate in Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is the driest desert of the world and also the largest source of sodium nitrate( it’s also called Chile Saltpeter). This remote location has played a significant role in human history, as it has been a primary location for mining sodium nitrate since pre-Columbian times. The Atacama Desert has little rainfall and very low humidity, which makes it an ideal location for the mining and production of sodium nitrates.

Sodium nitrate is used in explosives, fertilizers and other things, but there is also a large supply in the Atacama Desert. The boom occurred during the 1940s, when abandoned mining towns were found throughout areas of the desert that had extensive sodium nitrate.

5 Chinchorro Mummies

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The oldest artificially mummified human remains found from different regions of the world and one of them is Atacama Desert. They predate the Egyptian tombs by thousands of years, but the lack of moisture is what helps in the preservation of these samples. The earliest mummy found in Egypt dates back 3000 BC, while the earliest mummy recovered from the Atacama Desert is around 7020 BC and many thousand years older than ones found in Egypt.

6 The Driest Desert In The World

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

If you are looking at the driest warm desert in the world, the one which is rocky, sunny and receives hot days all year round, then the driest one is the Atacama Desert. Making up the central section of the west coast of South America. The Atacama runs from the plateau of the Andes Mountains and borders the Pacific Ocean on its western side.

The Atacama Desert is the driest desert in the world according to a study just published by NASA. The Atacama Desert never reached rainfall from 1570 to 1971. There is evidence suggesting it may have had no significant rainfall for more than 400 years. Rain has not fallen on some weather stations in the Atacama desert, with up to four years’ worth of dry time in the central zone, delimited by the cities of Antofagasta, Calama and Copiapó, in Chile.

The reason that this desert is so dry and have never registered a single drop of rain, it’s altitude. Because it’s located in-between two major mountain ranges on either side. Iquique and Arica receive approximately 3 millimeters of rainfall per year, but due to this situation they are also facing a difficult situation.

Scientists are still trying to understand all the intricate interactions between temperature, moisture and wind that create this desert environment.

7 Land Dispute

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

This barren landscape has led to a land dispute between Chile and Bolivia over who owns what in the desert. Bolivia contends that it owns the majority of the desert floor, while Chile argues that it owns a smaller area which includes the only perennial water source in the area: the Arica-Copiapó Dam.

During the War of the Pacific in the late 1800s, Chile and Bolivia had a dispute over this land because both countries were claiming it as their own. At the end of the war, Chile took control of everything in this region, which also has a huge mining potential.

8 Sterile Ground

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

There is too little moisture in the Atacama Desert, which makes it a kind of desert. It’s that lack of moisture that leaves it uninhabitable to all vegetation, depriving the land of water and nutrients, making it difficult to grow crops or stay fertile there. In places, the ground is so hard that not even the wind can erode it.

There are no trees, no buildings and very few human beings to be seen. The only evidence of human activity in the Atacama Desert is a small number of abandoned military bases that have been left behind by past generations. These harsh conditions have resulted in few plant or animal species inhabiting the region, leaving it as one of the world’s most pristine deserts.

9 Rainless

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

In this region, the average rainfall is around 1 millimeter per year. Some parts or locations of the desert have never seen any rain whatsoever. Some locations in Chile, such as Arica and Iquique, only receive about 1 to 3 mm (0.04 to 0.12 in) of rain a year. In the positioning of these cities, the aridity of the Atacama is explained by it being located between two mountain chains (the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range) that can prevent moist advection from either the Pacific or the Atlantic Oceans.

10 Red Planet-Like Soil

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

Researchers have discovered that soil found in the Atacama Desert is surprisingly similar to that of the soil collected on Mars. The Atacama Desert is a testing ground for NASA, who regularly performs experiments with equipment and robots to be sent to Mars. Because the terrain of the desert is so similar that these experiments yield natural results.

One another study was conducted by analyzing data from a European Space Agency probe that landed on Mars in 2003. Scientists analyzed samples of the soil taken from different areas on the planet, and they found similarities between the soils examined and those on Earth.

Hollywood has also acknowledged the resemblance of Atacama Desert to Mars, being especially drawn to major motion pictures that involve space travel.

11 Mano Del Desierto (The Desert Hand)

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

On the barren desert landscape of Atacama, in Chile, a piece of art (Giant Hand Sculpture) has been carefully placed by the sculptor Mario Irarrazabal in 1992. The Giant Hand Sculpture, located in the Atacama Desert in Chile, is the largest hand sculpture. The sculpture is made of iron and concrete and stands up to 11 meters (36 feet) tall and has an altitude of 1,100 meters above sea level.

It is symbolic because it stands as a testament to previous human right violations faced by Chileans. In this dry and desolate land, it’s inspiring to see art. It can be found on Route 5 on the Pan-American Highway.

The sculpture is now an iconic landmark of the desert and attracts tourists from all over the world.

12 Mummified Birds

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

In Feb. 2021, a study was conducted that studied 27 mummified parrots that were found in the Atacama Desert. These parrots were found with only their skeletal remains and had been mummified without feathers. Researchers believe that these birds may have been caught or transported from the Amazon Rainforest to the area thousands of years before.

In pre-Columbian Chile, bright plumed tropical parrots were symbols of wealth and prestige. Native societies of the time would’ve revered their colorful plumage for uses both decorative, including headdresses and it is believed that that was a sign of leadership.

13 The Purple Desert

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert turns into a gorgeous display of colors during the springtime. Every year, parts of the Atacama Desert’s beautiful orange landscape changes to a vibrant purple, thanks to the small percentage of rain in this region. The flowers are not only beautiful but also give hope for life even in the driest places. Due to global warming and human disruption, these flowers are threatened, though visitors can still marvel at their beauty if they visit this valley.

This particular desert is known for its striking purple coloration, which comes from the abundance of wildflower species endemic to the region. Visitors are amazed not just by the beauty and resilience of these flowers but also because of global warming and human disruption.

14 Become Famous Tourist Spots

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

Technological advancements in the past decade means that Humberstone Saltpeter Mine and Santa Laura Saltpeter Mine were listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites in 2005. The mine workers were from Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.

Other attractions include its abandoned mines, scientific institutions, and ancient civilizations. Some of the most popular activities in the desert are hiking, camping, observing animals and nature, and enjoying the sun and wind. All the things that make the Atacama Desert a famous tourist destination.

15 Metal And Non-Metal Resources

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

As mining has slowed down, people have found new ways to continue operating by extracting resources from the Atacama Desert. The desert supplies one-third of the world’s copper and other metals, and is becoming a primary source of minerals such as boron, lithium, and salts. Other metals include gold, silver and iron.

Despite its harsh conditions, some scientists believe that the Atacama Desert may be home to vast quantities of metals and non-metals.

16 The Uyuni Salt Flats

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

One of the world’s largest salt flats is located in Bolivia. Salar de Uyuni, which can be translated as “Salar de Uyuni”, sprawls over 4,000 square miles and has a layer of salt approximately 3 meters thick that covers the entirety of space. There is next to nothing growing in the area, and some flamingos are seen feeding on pink algae, because there is natural resource extraction happening at a large scale here.

Salar de is about 100 km (62 mi) long, and 80 km (50 mi) wide, which makes it the third-largest salt flat in the world.

17 Center of The World’s Attention

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is one of the driest, most barren landscapes on Earth. And yet, it has gained a reputation as the center of the world’s attention. In August 2010, 33 miners were trapped in a 120-year-old copper-gold mine. Despite the difficult conditions, they were rescued after 69 days long, without any casualties on 13th October 2010.

18 Penguins In The Atacama Desert

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The penguins of the Atacama Desert live a very different life than most penguins in the world. These penguins live in an area with little to no precipitation, and since there is no fresh water to be found, they must rely on salts found in the air.

The Humboldt penguin is a top predator that occurs on the west coast of South America. Its breeding range includes southern Chile, along with the arid coastal regions of the Atacama Desert to the Isla Foca which is in northern Peru. To escape hot conditions, this penguin swims in the Humboldt currents near its breeding colonies.

19 Flamingos In The Atacama Desert

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is a place of great natural beauty. The unique climate and geography has made it the perfect place for a colony of flamingos. These graceful animals can be seen at various locations in the desert, including at the Salar de Uyuni, which is the world’s largest salt flat.

Despite occupying an extreme environment, the flamingo bird is one example of an animal that can manage with adaptations able to adapt to hostile conditions; not just in Chile’s Atacama Desert but on a global scale. The three species of Chilean flamingos – shorter James, big and bright pink Guzmán and yellow-legged Andean, three species of Chilean Flamingos live in the barren and side by side Atacama Desert and have evolved unique features that allow them to thrive in this dry, non-polar desert.

20 Tiny Humanoid Skeleton

Driest Place On Earth Atacama Desert

It was only 15 cm long, had a strange appearance which led many to speculate that it must be an alien. It was later identified by DNA and x-ray analysis as human. The skeleton was carbon-dated to be around 10,000 years old and appeared to show signs of being mutilated.

While it is still unclear what these creatures really were, speculation includes that they may have been members of a previously undiscovered indigenous culture or evidence of human-like creatures that evolved due to an unusually dry environment.

Medical professionals believed it was a six to eight-year-old child with an unidentified medical condition due to the density of its teeth and because of the wide and elongated ribs and tiny size of the head.


Book: Imagining the Atacama Desert: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey of Discovery by Richard Francaviglia