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Atacama desert, the driest place on Earth

Updated on February 13, 2014
Atacama desert creative commons
Atacama desert creative commons

Atacama desert

The Atacama desert while not as well known as the Sahara or the Kalahari, but it has the distinction of being the driest place on earth. As you can see from the picture to the right, it doesn't even look like the Earth, it looks more like another planet. The Atacama is a 600 mile long strip of land on the north western coast of Chile, the desert averages about 45 miles wide. The Atacama covers an area of 70,000 square miles and is composed of salts, sand and lava flows, the lava sand and salt mixture gives some very interesting color combinations.

Lack of rainfall

The Atacama desert is considered the driest place on Earth. Parts of the desert get rain on occasion, other parts of the Atacama are so dry, they have not received any rain since the mid 1700's. The reason this desert is so dry is because it is bordered on the East by the Andes mountains, the mountains block any clouds from the rain forest on the other side of the mountains from getting over to the desert. It's kind of ironic that the driest place on Earth is bordered on the west by the largest body of water on Earth. Along part of the coast is a low coastal mountain range, the average elevation of the Atacama desert plateau is around 2000 feet above sea level.

The air is so dry in the central part of the Atacama that nothing even rots. Meat can be left in the open and it will be preserved indefinitely.

Shot of desert from space shuttle
Shot of desert from space shuttle

Atacama climate

The climate is also different than most other deserts in the world. Most deserts are hot, at least during the daytime. Some get cold at night. The Atacama temperatures range from around 40 degrees at night, to around 75 degrees during the day in the summer. In the winter the temperature drops to 30 degrees at night to 69 degrees for a high, and it's always sunny. Sounds like perfect weather, except for the no rain for 300 years.

Moon Valley Creative commons
Moon Valley Creative commons

Moisture and other life

Most of the moisture that does get into the desert comes from the moisture in the fog that drifts in from the ocean at night. There are some pockets of vegetation that survive from the moisture from the fog. there are some insects that also live around the plant life. In the areas that are dry, there is no life at all. There are no insects, no plants, no other life. Another interesting creature that can survive here are several flocks of flamingos that live in and around the salt lakes in the desert, they survive eating the red algae that grows in the lakes.

Salt formation moon valley creative commons
Salt formation moon valley creative commons

Other life

There is a real town named Calama in the Atacama desert, There are shops, hotels, and restaurants in the town of 143,000 people.  Calama is one of the driest towns in the world.  The average annual rainfall is .2 inches.  Calama is located on the northern end of the Atacama desert at 8,000 feet above sea level.

another moon valley shot creative commons
another moon valley shot creative commons

What goes on here

There are several types of mines in the desert where they mine minerals, salt and copper. This is one of the best places in the world for astronomers and archeologists. There are never clouds blocking the sky and the air is crystal clear. Archeologists have found some of the oldest mummy's ever found, very well preserved bodies of people buried in the sand and salt some up to 9,000 years old. Because of the total lack of moisture, nothing rots.


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    • profile image

      Anubic 5 years ago

      Its not the driest place on earth though, Its the driest easily accessible place, but the driest place on earth is the Dry Valleys in Antarctica. With no rain or snow for 2 million years and 0% humidity

    • profile image

      jenny kent 6 years ago

      this is some good info

    • ChristinCordle12 profile image

      ChristinCordle12 6 years ago

      Oh...So Atacama is the driest desert on earth. Hew to

    • profile image

      Fabio Velez 7 years ago

      Hice una travecia desde Bolivia y estuve en Atacama,con tan mala suerte que mi camara se quedo sin baterias,asi que solo me quedan los recuerdos por sierto que son de asombro,que paraiso tan desierto.

    • profile image

      jack 7 years ago

      that is cool:)

    • estranged911 profile image

      estranged911 7 years ago from India!

      There is a place in Ladakh, India called Lumayru which is the only place in the rest of the world having a similar moonscapes.