Defiant Desert

From snow to flowers, explore Chile’s peculiar Atacama Desert

The Atacama is known as the driest place on earth but, situated between an ocean and towering mountains, that’s far from the only reason it stands out.

Monday, October 07, 2013  
The Flowering Desert. Photo by mvguzman/ Flickr. The Flowering Desert. Photo by mvguzman/ Flickr.

 

A desert, located between the longest mountain range in the world to the East, the largest oceanic division to the West and with the largest tropical rainforest not far off to the North, the Atacama is bound to be unique.

Not least in the long list of pleasant peculiarities have been the recent heavy snowfall, and the miraculous “flowering desert” phenomenon that occurs every few years.

On a trip to the Atacama in early September, visitors were confronted with the unexpected  beauty of snow-capped sand dunes in a region well-known as the driest place on earth, a vast desert where rivers notoriously flow down from the Andes and dry up in the desert before even reaching the ocean.
 
With high altitudes in the Atacama, ranging from 2,000 to over 6,000 meters, snow is a yearly occurrence as the “altiplano winter” phenomenon brings heavy precipitation in January and February.

However, it had been 30 years since it had snowed in the Atacama during the dry season.
 
This is Chile spoke to local tour guide and astronomy expert Alejandro Arellano, about his take on the unusual weather.
 
“We normally have 10-50 mm of snow on average per year, but never in August. We had several unusual storms [so far this year]. Snow hadn’t appeared in the dry season in these parts for over 30 years,” Arellano told This is Chile.

He claims, however, that snow, even in the dry season, is simply part of the cycle of the weather patterns over the years.
 
The snow is very unusual but not unexpected and certainly nothing to worry ourselves over. If you think about it, we have a very unique position, being the driest place on Earth yet still close to a tropical rainforest,” he explained. “That’s where I think the storms come from. They never come from the Pacific. They come from the Amazon.”

Arellano seemed as excited as everyone else to see the spectacle of snow on sand.
 
I think it’s actually a good thing. If nothing else, it will attract more tourists and flora connoisseurs interested in seeing the desert in bloom,” Arellano half-joked.
 
The Desierta Florida or Flowering Desert is a mesmerizing phenomenon that occurs only every few years in the Atacama Desert, adding to its idiosyncrasy. Almost an oxymoron in itself, the blooming of wildflowers in the desert is contingent upon the amount of rainfall in a specific year.

If enough water accumulates, the barren landscape of rocks, sand and cacti transforms into a colorful carpet of wildflowers, its exceptional popularity means that Atacama tourism blooms along with the flora. 
 
An estimated 200 varieties of flowers rise to the surface of the desert, welcoming excited visitors.
 
By Daphne Karnezis

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