HOW DO LIVING THINGS SURVIVE HERE?? See The Country Where There’s Never Been Rain


This port city lies at the top of the long skinny country of Chile, and actually lies to the west of the well-known Atacama Desert. The surrounding desert is mined for the natural fertilizer nitrate, and the town does boast beaches for escaping the dry air. If rain does fall, it happens in January and February.

The famous Dry Valleys of Antarctica are aptly named. It’s literally too windy to snow there, so precipitation gets wicked away as soon as it appears. But the driest non-polar spot on Earth is even more remarkable. There are places in Chile’s Atacama Desert where rain has never been recorded—and yet, there are hundreds of species of vascular plants growing there. What’s the deal?

Leave your umbrella at home.

It’s hard to overstate just how arid the Atacama, a plateau on the coast of northern Chile, really is. The Andes Mountains work like a 13,000-foot-high wall, completely blocking systems of moist air that might otherwise wander down from the Amazon Basin. As a result, the entire Atacama, a strip of land 1,000 miles wide, is virtually rainless. Arica, one of the desert’s largest cities, receives an average annual rainfall of 0.76 millimeters, about the height of a flea egg.

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There have been one billion days of sunny weather.

There are weather stations in the Atacama that have never recorded any rain. The town of Calama went without a single drop of rain from 1570 to 1971—more than 400 years! There are river beds that have been dry for 120,000 years, and scientists think that the Atacama has been a desert for over three million years, which would make it the oldest dry spot on Earth.

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Chile: the final frontier.

The waterless Atacama is so unearthly that it’s regularly used as a stand-in for Mars, both by Hollywood movie crews and by NASA. Before scientific instruments are launched into space on Mars probes, they perform the same tests in the dusty soil of the Atacama to make sure all systems are go. Other astronomers go to the barren Atacama to watch the skies. ALMA, the world’s largest telescope array, opened there in 2013.

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The Atacama’s leading crop: fog.

Despite the aridity, there are zones in the Atacama where algae, lichens, and cacti grow happily. That’s because there’s a marine fog called the camanchaca that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean, letting these clever plants pull the moisture they need directly out of the air. Local villagers are catching on, too. Some are now stringing plastic netting to harvest fog water straight out of the air, which they can use to drink or water their gardens.

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