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Why is the Atacama Desert called the “driest desert in the world”?

One of the most impressive places in the north of Chile is San Pedro de Atacama. Not only do its landscapes look like they’re on another planet, but also its soil, which is used by scientists to simulate the experience of stepping on Mars. The wind flow, the ocean currents and the surrounding mountains are some of the factors which create these fascinating and unique conditions.
Februar 19, 2021

Diego Salas

The average rainfall in the Atacama Desert is less than one millimeter per year, making it fifty times drier than Death Valley in California, USA. In fact, there are sectors that have never received a drop of rain, at least in the time since they started measuring. Even in such extreme conditions, this amazing place has a special energy.

Despite the scarcity of water, it has never lacked life. In fact, it has been inhabited over centuries by influential Andean communities who developed abundant agriculture and stockbreeding. Its characteristic aridity has allowed for the formation of impressive landscapes.

The texture of the desert ground – which over three million years ago was part of the sea floor – is surrounded by numerous mountains and volcanoes. The colors of the sky change throughout the day, showing off a spectacle of endless views, perfect for admiring and taking some beautiful photos.

Why is the Atacama Desert so dry?

The Atacama Desert is located in a zone called the “shadow of rain”. This is determined by its geographical location: between the Andes mountain range, which blocks the humid air of the Amazons, and the Coastal mountain range, which interjects between the air currents that come from the Pacific Ocean.

The wind and ocean flows fulfill a key role in the formation of this especially dry part of the planet. The Pacific anticyclone, for example, blows up from the South Pole towards the north, bringing with it cold and dry air, while Walker circulation works to move the clouds. Meanwhile, the famous Humbolt oceanic current produces a thermal inversion that impedes the formation of humidity in the zone. Basically, there is an absence of rains and high evaporation.

These natural, complex, and dynamic factors make the Atacama Desert an incredibly dry place. Nevertheless, this does not mean that there is no water. There are numerous underground reserves which have accumulated over thousands of years and are still being investigated. In fact, the hotel Tierra Atacama gets its water supply this way, so as not to affect the water consumption of the locals of San Pedro. This is just one of their sustainable initiatives to protect the native environment.

It is important to note that there does exist an even more arid desert on the planet: the dry valleys of Antarctica. Which is why it’s more precise to say that the Atacama Desert is the driest non-polar place in the world.

The impressive landscapes formed in the Atacama Desert not only amaze during the day with its beautiful sunrises and sunsets. At night, these special geographic conditions allow for an absolutely clear sky. For this reason, astronomers from around the world have come here to study the universe, developing the most important network of observatories.

We invite you to discover the marvelous scenery that the Atacama Desert has for you and your family. With the help of the excursions that our expert team of guides at Tierra Atacama have prepared, you’ll be able to enjoy an unforgettable adventure and learn everything about this astonishing place.



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