The Atacama Desert has interesting characteristics and an intriguing history.
The Atacama Desert, a 600-700-mile-long region in northern Chile, has curious characteristics and an intriguing history with human activity. Known as one of the driest areas in the world, the desert possesses several traits worthy of further exploration and allures inhabitants and political endeavors for its nutrient-rich territory.
Situated between the Loa River’s south bend and the mountains splitting the Salado-Copiapó drainage basins, the Atacama Desert’s geological features are diverse. Comprised of salt flats near the Cordillera de la Costa mountains toward the west and alluvial fans, or triangle-shaped deposits of gravel, sand and other small pieces of sediment, near the foothills of the Andes Mountains toward the east, the desert’s physical features, in contrast to its meteorological ones, vary greatly.
Between the two mountain chains lies the Tamarugal Plain, as well as the Atacama Plateau that in some areas sits at an elevation of 13,000 feet and volcanic cones that reach as high as 16,000 feet.
As a result of the Atacama Desert’s location, it is the second driest place on Earth behind Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, which have not had precipitation in almost 2 million years. The desert’s conditions develop for several reasons, including the fact the region is located in the rain shadow of the Andes Mountains and is impacted by the Humboldt Current, an ocean current that produces no rain.
Although the region is arid, it is home to microbial life, as well as salt deposits and a 435-mile-long and 12-mile-wide area called the nitrate belt. Due to its nutrient-rich lands, Bolivia, Chile and Peru fought for the Atacama Desert in the 19th century, most notably in the War of the Pacific.
From 1879-83, a Bolivia-Peru alliance challenged Chile for disputed coastal territory, eventually failing and giving previously controlled lands to Chile as a result of the Treaty of Ancón.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Chile mined the desert’s nitrate deposits and had a global monopoly on the compounds by World War I, sometimes extracting approximately 3,000,000 tons of it each year.
Although the nation generates less revenue from nitrate due to the establishment of artificial ways of fixing nitrogen, Chile still uses the Atacama Desert in possibly beneficial ways, as it allows sponsors from other countries to utilize telescopes and rovers in it.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is one of those telescopes. Consisting of 66 radio antennas approximately 16,570 feet above sea level, the instrument is designed to see ancient, distant galaxies and forming planets.
Rovers owned by the European Space Agency and NASA have also occupied the area, as evidenced by the organizations’ instruments deployed in the last five years. Since the Atacama Desert provides a similar environment to that of Mars, the agencies performed tests with their rovers to practice navigating arid terrains.
While the desert supports little life, save some river oases that are home to farmed products like lemons, potatoes and alfalfa, the region provides nations and agencies the opportunity to explore it to benefit society in terrestrial and extraterrestrial ways.