What is the typical amount of rainfall in the Atacama Desert?

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By Kristy Tolley

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert is located in northern Chile and is one of the driest places on earth. It stretches over 1,000 kilometers along the Pacific coast and covers an area of approximately 105,000 square kilometers. The desert is characterized by its unique landscape, which includes salt flats, sand dunes, and volcanic peaks. Despite its harsh conditions, the Atacama is home to a variety of plant and animal species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world.

Climate and Weather

The climate of the Atacama Desert is classified as a hyper-arid, or extremely dry, desert climate. This means that the region receives very little rainfall and experiences high levels of evaporation. The temperature in the Atacama can vary greatly depending on the time of day and the season, with daytime temperatures reaching up to 40°C and nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing. The desert is also known for its strong winds and frequent sandstorms, which can make travel and outdoor activities difficult.

Factors Affecting Rainfall

Several factors contribute to the low rainfall in the Atacama Desert. One of the main factors is the region’s location in the rain shadow of the Andes Mountains. This means that the mountains block moisture from the Pacific Ocean, creating a dry climate on the eastern side. Additionally, the cold Humboldt Current off the coast of Chile reduces the amount of moisture in the air, further decreasing the chances of rainfall.

Average Rainfall in the Atacama

The Atacama Desert is known for its extremely low rainfall, with some areas receiving no measurable rainfall for decades at a time. However, there are some areas of the desert that receive more rainfall than others. On average, the Atacama receives less than 1 millimeter of rainfall per year, making it one of the driest places on earth. However, some areas of the desert, such as the high plateau region, receive slightly more rainfall, with an average of 50 millimeters per year.

The Driest Place on Earth

The Atacama Desert is considered the driest place on earth, with some areas receiving no measurable rainfall for centuries at a time. This extreme dryness has led to the development of unique geological formations and ecosystems, such as the salt flats and the flowering desert.

Rainfall Variability Over Time

Although the Atacama is known for its low rainfall, there have been periods in the past when the region was much wetter. Records show that the desert experienced a period of increased rainfall between 10,000 and 7,000 years ago, which led to the development of lakes and rivers. However, since then, the region has become increasingly arid, with the last significant rainfall event occurring in the 1970s.

Rainfall Extremes in the Atacama

While the Atacama is known for its low rainfall, there have been some instances of extreme rainfall in the region. In 2015, the Atacama experienced a once-in-a-lifetime rainfall event, with some areas receiving more than 10 years’ worth of rainfall in just a few days. This led to flash floods and landslides, which caused significant damage to infrastructure and claimed several lives.

Causes and Effects of Low Rainfall

The low rainfall in the Atacama Desert has significant impacts on the region’s ecosystems, as well as on human populations. The lack of water limits the growth of plant species, which in turn affects the animals that rely on them for food and shelter. The scarcity of water also makes it difficult for human populations to survive in the desert, and many communities rely on imported water for their daily needs.

Regional and Global Implications

The low rainfall in the Atacama Desert has implications beyond the region itself. The global climate is intricately connected, and changes in one area can have far-reaching effects on others. Understanding the factors that contribute to the low rainfall in the Atacama can provide insights into how climate change is affecting other regions of the world.

Current Research on Rainfall Patterns

Researchers are currently studying the rainfall patterns in the Atacama Desert to better understand how the region’s climate has changed over time and what factors contribute to its extreme dryness. By analyzing geological and biological records, scientists hope to gain insights into how the desert has adapted to its arid conditions and what changes may be in store for the future.

Conclusion: Understanding the Atacama

The Atacama Desert is a unique and fascinating region of the world, characterized by its extreme dryness and harsh conditions. While the lack of rainfall can make life difficult for both humans and wildlife, the desert’s unique geological formations and ecosystems make it an important area for scientific study and conservation efforts.

References and Further Reading

  • "Atacama Desert." National Geographic. Accessed December 10, 2021. .
  • "Atacama Desert." UNESCO. Accessed December 10, 2021. .
  • "The Atacama Desert: The Driest Place on Earth." Live Science. Accessed December 10, 2021. .
  • Garreaud, René D. "The Atacama Desert Climate in the 21st Century." Revista Chilena de Historia Natural 85, no. 3 (2012): 411-25. doi:10.4067/s0716-078×2012000300009.
  • Le Roux, Jacobus P., and Thomas C. Edwards Jr. "A History of Aridity in the Atacama Desert." Geology 30, no. 4 (2002): 375-78. doi:10.1130/0091-7613(2002)0302.0.co;2.
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Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

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