Which is the driest place on the Earth? is it the Atacama Desert?

Chile’s Atacama Desert is the driest nonpolar desert on the planet. It is in the northern part of the country and spans roughly 600 to 700 miles or 1,000 to 1,100 kilometers from north to south. While its limits are not exactly defined, it lies mainly between the Andes Mountains and the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range.

The desert mainly consists of alluvial flats from the foothills of the Andes mountains towards the east and of salt flats from the coastal mountain range on the west. Dunes often cover some of the flats, but massive accumulations of pebbles are more of a common sight in the area.

The Atacama Desert is one of the oldest of its kind on the planet and has been through semi-arid conditions for an estimated 150 million years. Some studies suggest that its center has been extremely arid for nearly 15 million years due to the distinct atmospheric and geologic environment in the area. The said core stretches about 50,000 square miles or 130,000 square kilometers.

What makes Atacama Desert dry is that it is part of the arid South American Pacific fringe. The South Pacific high-pressure cell produces dry atmospheric subsidence, making the desert one of the driest regions on Earth. Moreover, the aridness is also caused by the Humboldt or Peru Current. It is denoted by upwelling, where cold water from the ocean depth rises upward. The cold water then results in a thermal inversion. While such a condition produces clouds, it only creates fog or status ones but no actual rain.

In other deserts on the planet, like the famous Sahara in Africa, the temperature can reach above 130 degrees Fahrenheit or 50 degrees Celsius. The temperature in Atacama, however, tends to be relatively mild in the entire year, which is about 63 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius.

An extinct Indian tribe, the Atacameño, were the original settlers of the desert. Their culture is distinct and is not linked to the Aymara Tribe of the north or the Diaguita Tribe of the south. The desert has been the center of conflict for most of the 19th century. It caused issues between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, due to its mineral resources, mainly sodium nitrates.

While Bolivia and Peru originally owned much of the area, the mining activities were particularly under Chilean and British hands, backed up by the government of Chile. In the War of the Pacific that occurred from 1879 to 1893, Chile won, and the Treat of Ancon secured them the ownership of the areas Bolivia and Peru controlled in the past, with the former giving away the whole of its Pacific coastline.

The Atacama Desert became the country’s main source of wealth until World War I. Prior to the said war, Chile monopolized the nitrate industry in the world. In certain years, the country even extracted 3 million tons of nitrate. The export taxes then accounted for about 50% of the government’s total income. Today, some sulfur is being extracted in the Cordillera. But, the main source of revenue in the region now is copper mining in the Calama basin at Chuquicamata.

Farming is done on some part near the river oases in the desert. However, this only accounts for a total of a few thousand farmers. At the Calama basin, Loa River’s water provides irrigation to alfalfa and potato fields while lemons are being cultivated at Pica. 557

While the desert is blessed with mineral sources and a decent amount of land for cultivation, the region also serves as a home for different communities of living organisms that have adapted and thrive despite the desert’s harsh conditions. Its inner core, however, doesn’t support animal and plant life, except for a few kinds of microbial life. Experts hope that further studying the harsh conditions in the desert can be a key in discovering many secrets on the existence of life in the other parts of the Universe, like Mars.

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