The driest desert in the world

15th November 2012 by Helen

We have been staying in a little town called San Pedro de Atacama.  Atacama is the name of a huge desert in Chile, which is in South America.  The desert runs a long way down the western coast of Chile (the yellow bit on the map below).  Parts of the desert extends right into Boliva, Peru and Argentina (the orange bit on the map below).  The desert measures 105,000 square kilometers (that’s 40,600 square miles).

File:Atacama map.svg

The Atacama Desert is the driest place in the world.  The average rainfall in the Chilean part of the desert is 1mm per year.  There are some weather stations that have not recorded any rain at all.  It is so dry that even mountains as high as 6,885 metres don’t have any glaciers.  British scientists think that there were some rivers here 120,000 years ago.

In some places the soil of the Atacama Desert has been compared to the planet Mars.  Because of this film makers have used the Atacama Desert for filming Mars scenes (eg Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets).  In fact it’s not just how it looks that makes the Atacama Desert like Mars.  Just like Mars scientists have not been able to find any microbial life in the soil.  Scientists from NASA use the Atacama Desert to test the instruments they will put in the spaceships they plan to send to Mars in the future.

You would think that without any water and with such a dry soil people would not be able to live in the Atacama Desert.  But a very few have managed to live here.  The Atacemeno tribe have lived here for a long time.  We know the Spanish lived in San Pedro de Atacama since 1577 because they build the church here then.

People have also been finding precious minerals in the ground and

In the last hundred years there has been lots of mining done here.  People have been digging for copper, nitrate and other important minerals.  Small towns grew up around the mines but the people left the towns when the mines closed.  There are about 170 abandoned nitrate mining towns in the Atacama Desert.


Information taken from:

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