Why the Atacama Desert is important

If you have been wondering what the driest desert of the world is, the answer is the Atacama Desert. Let’s see some interesting facts about the desert.

Atacama Desert in Chile is the driest place on mother Earth. Its extreme environment has been studied by scientists and geologists to learn more about life on Mars and other planets. But despite its harsh conditions, a number of animals and plants have adapted to survive there.

Conditions at the Atacama make it a great location for scientific research into astronomy, geology and astrobiology – the study of life in space.

The Atacama Desert covers more than an area of 104,000 square kilometres along Chile’s Pacific coast in South America. It stretches from just north of Santiago to Antofagasta and is about one thousand six hundred kilometers long. It lies between two mountain ranges: the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. The desert is roughly 200 kilometres (120 miles) wide from east to west. Most of it lies at an altitude between 1,000 and 3,000 metres (3,300 to 9,800 feet). The highest parts reach 6,500 metres (21,300 feet).

Desert Atacama Chile Sand Dry  - Scheidt / Pixabay
Scheidt / Pixabay

Climate of the Atacama Desert

It is a plateau that goes from the coastal range to the Andes Mountains. The climate of this region is characterized by high temperatures in summer, low precipitation and dryness due to the coastal fog that usually descends into the valleys during certain parts of the year.

If you have been wondering how much rainfall is there in the Atacama Desert the answer is that, it is estimated to receive less than 1 mm of rainfall per year (the desert with the lowest precipitation in the world), which makes it one of the driest places on mother Earth. Places like Yungay (about 6 km from Antofagasta) have not recorded any rainfall since records began in 1860.

This desert has a climate that varies widely, ranging from extremely dry and hyper arid to semi-arid. The average annual rainfall in this desert is 0.04 inches. There are places in this desert that haven’t seen a drop of rain for more than 400 years.

The Atacama Desert is so dry because it lies in the rain shadow of the Andes mountains and it is also located on the western coast of South America making it a cold Humboldt Current. These current carries cold water from Antarctica to the Pacific coast of South America. The air that flows from this current is cooled down as it passes over ocean water bringing very little moisture with it.

Despite this, there are some areas where there are small oases, such as those in San Pedro de Atacama and Toconao (about 40 km southeast of San Pedro), where irrigation channels allow agriculture to be established.

Desert Atacama Nature Outdoors  - b-olga-n / Pixabay
b-olga-n / Pixabay

Why do tourists visit the Atacama Desert?

The main attraction of this area is tourism and mining activities. The main cities are Antofagasta, Calama and Copiapó (the latter being one of Chile’s most important mining cities).

It is believed that the Atacama Desert was once covered by ocean which evaporated leaving behind salt basins and mineral deposits such as copper and nitrate. In the 18th century saltpeter (nitrates of sodium or potassium) was discovered which made Chile one of the largest exporters of nitrates in the world.

The Atacama Desert contains a number of salt basins, or salt flats (salars), which contain large quantities of sodium nitrate deposits. These deposits were produced by periodic rains and floods, which released nitrates carried by streams into the basin. Sodium nitrate was mined here until synthetic production began in Germany during World War I. The salar at Atacama is one of the largest in the world and believed to contain more than 60 million tons of sodium nitrate.

Are there living beings in the Atacama Desert?

Even though it’s the driest desert, it still has life – from giant crabs to cacti, there is life.

There are a few small towns and cities located within this desert: Arica (population 230,000), Iquique (190,000), Antofagasta (388,000), Copiapo (175,000), and La Serena (205,000).


The Atacama Desert is a non-polar desert and it is the driest place on land. It is also one of the very few places on Earth that receives so little rainfall it can be considered a true desert. The northernmost part of this desert region is a plateau that lies at an elevation of 10,000 feet (3,048 m).

The dry climate of this desert is caused by its location between two mountain ranges and its distance from any ocean. On average there are only 10 rainy days per year in some regions of the Atacama Desert. In some areas rainfall has never been measured at all as well.

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