Last Updated on December 20, 2022
Something truly unexpected happened last month in Chile, when the sand dunes of the Atacama Desert were suddenly springing with life, with plants and flowers turning the landscape into a rainbow of colors.
Chile’s Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth. Rainfall normally occurs once every two to seven years, and it is heavily dependent on a natural weather phenomen called “El Niño”.
Normally, the Atacama desert has a surface so dry it has been compared to that of Mars. Its landscape is filled with red rocks, craters, canyons and sand dunes, without a single form of vegetation. But despite not being visible, plant life is still there – dormant, and patiently waiting for the next rainfall.
When El Niño occurs, the ocean waters off the coast of South America become warmer than usual, leading to an increase in humidity and rainfall in the region. In the Atacama Desert, this increased rainfall can trigger a bloom of flowers, as the desert plants are able to take advantage of the sudden influx of water to grow and reproduce.
However, desert blooms in the Atacama Desert are not necessarily caused solely by El Niño weather patterns, and other factors, such as local weather patterns and changes in temperature, can also contribute to the phenomenon.
A winter rain like that experienced in October 2022 was out of the ordinary and likely linked to climate change, and caused a sudden and unexpected desert bloom.
The rare phenomenon known as “desert blooming” or “superbloom” can occur in a few locations worldwide, but is only recurrent in the Atacama Desert thanks to El Niño. More than 200 different species of desert plants and flowers have adapted to stay dormant for years while waiting for the ideal environmental conditions to bloom. Because rainfall is so rare and only occurs once every couple of years, usually in the form of flash floods, desert wildflowers all bloom at the same time.
What results from desert blooming is a unique landscape of “colored” sand dunes entirely covered with vegetation. Flowers in the Atacama desert come in hue of purple, red, white and yellow.
Earlier last month, Chilean president Gabriel Boric had announced the area would be turned into a Desert Blooming National Park, likely extending between the cities of Copiapó and Vallenar.
Video: Chile’s Atacama Desert turns into a flowery garden
About the Atacama Desert
Martian landscapes can be found in northern Chile, in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth: canyons carved by wind erosion, and large salt lakes make it the ideal place to test in simulation the rovers to be sent to Mars.
With altitudes ranging from 2,400 meters to more than 4,200 meters above sea level, in fact, a number of factors converge in this area that make it perfect for sky and stargazing: clear air, very little rainfall, and almost total absence of light pollution. The Chilean desert is also a paradise for photographers, whether they point their lens at the sky or the earth.
The town of San Pedro de Atacama is the perfect foothold from which to set out to explore the desert: with a single drive you can reach the wind-sculpted rock formations that make up the Valle de la Luna / Moon Valley and the Valle de Marte / Mars Valley (also known as the Valle de la Muerte or Death Valley), both striking spots to admire the spectacle of sunset over the Atacama Desert.
A few kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama you can visit the Aldea de Tulor, one of the oldest archaeological sites in Chile, between the Cordillera del Sale and expanses of sand dunes. The Aldea (“small village” in Spanish) consists of a series of small circular buildings of pre-Columbian influence, linked together and used for the performance of various daily activities.
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