Chile’s Atacama Desert Blooms (2017)

It is one of the driest places on earth.  Average rainfall is 0.5 inches per year; some areas have no recorded rainfall—ever.  But when it does rain, as it did leading up to August 23, 2017, watch out!  The desert blooms!

The Atacama Desert in Chile lies along the northwestern edge of the country, a thin line stretching for more than 600 miles, squeezed between the Pacific Ocean and the foot of the Andes mountains.  It is a high, cool desert, at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet and with daytime temperatures only in the high 60s, Fahrenheit.

The Atacama Desert in its usual arid state in 2010 (photo by Christian Van Der Henst S.)

Even in its usual dry state, it is starkly beautiful.  Some areas are painted by a variety of mineral deposits—cobalt, gypsum, lamprophyre.  At sunset, the ringing mountains are bathed in orange and yellow.  At night, the lack of water vapor in the air and the absence of human settlements bring the sky to life.  So vivid is the night sky that the European Southern Observatory maintains two facilities in the area.

And every so often, at intervals of 5-7 years, a drenching rainfall produces what locals call the “desierto florido” or “flowering desert.”  That unusual rainfall occurred in early August, 2017, leading to the bloom centered on August 23.  The desert blooms as dormant seeds of more than 200 flowering plants burst from the soil.  The normally barren landscape is then carpeted in millions of colorful flowers, white, yellow, blue, purple.  Although individual flowers may last for only a few days, the different germination rates among species means the phenomenon as a whole lasts for several weeks.

The Atacama Desert in its “desierto florido” state, 2002 (photo by Javier Rubilar)

Most of us who love nature know that the desert teems with life.  Plants and animals have adapted to the harsh conditions, finding ways to harvest and retain water or being active only at night.  A hike through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona reveals abundant life from massive cacti to scurrying insects.

But the massive bloom of Atacama is an especially rare and beautiful reminder that we must be humble about our understanding of nature.  What we experience through human eyes on occasional forays into a desert is the equivalent of the small part of the iceberg that lies above the water’s surface.  What we don’t see or experience is the massive storehouse of life that hides from our casual understanding or observation.

One of my pet peeves is the environmentalist’s claim that nature is fragile.  Nonsense.  Nature isn’t fragile or weak or on the brink of destruction.  Nature is strong, resilient, dismissive of human attempts to corrupt it.  Yes, nature might not produce what we think is scenic or valuable at our command or on our schedule, but what nature produces of its own choosing is both mighty and awesome.

Sometimes the awe comes from the fearsome and immediate forces of a lightning strike or tornado.  Sometimes it comes from the slow, relentless forces of a drought or insect invasion.

But sometimes the awe comes from a desert floor awash in colorful blooms that we never knew were possible.  Look at nature with open eyes and an open mind—and be awed.

References:

BBC News.  Chile’s Atacama desert:  World’s driest place in bloom after surprise rain.  23 August 2017.  Available at:  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-41021774.  Accessed June 27, 2018.

Encyclopedia Britannica.  Atacama Desert.  Available at:  https://www.britannica.com/place/Atacama-Desert.  Accessed June 27, 2018.

Gibbons, Sarah.  2017.  See One of Earth’s Driest Places Experience Rare Flower Boom.  National Georgaphic News, August 30, 2017.  Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/08/chile-atacama-desert-wildflower-super-bloom-video-spd/.  Accessed June 27, 2018.

Leadbeater, Chris.  Exploring Chile’s Atacama Desert.  National Georgraphic Travel.  Available at:  https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/south-america/chile/explore-chile-atacama-desert-stargazing/.  Accessed June 27, 2018.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Alvaro Uglade, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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