The Atacama Desert on the west coast of South America • Earth.com

The Atacama Desert on the west coast of South America

Today’s Image of the Day from NASA Earth Observatory features the west coast of South America. The photo was captured by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station while orbiting over the Atacama Desert and Central Andes Mountains near the border of Bolivia, Peru, and Chile.

“Over the Pacific Ocean, marine stratocumulus clouds develop over cold water that rises from the ocean depths as the Peru current (Humboldt current) flows north along the west coast of South America,” says NASA.

“The coastline is marked by low mountains that are dissected by canyons carved by rivers that flow down the western side of the Andes.”

The Atacama Desert receives less than 0.2 inches of rain per year on average. According to NASA, this dry environment provides an ideal setting to conduct Mars analog studies.

“Active and inactive volcanoes comprise the Central Andean Volcanic Arc within the Atacama Desert and Andes Mountains. One of the inactive volcanoes visible in this photo is Bolivia’s Nevado Sajama, which has a maximum elevation of 6,542 meters (21,463 feet). Nevado Sajama and other volcanoes in the region often have glaciers and snow cover due to their high elevation.”

The Atacama Desert is often referred to as the driest desert in the world. Despite its harsh environment, this desert is far from lifeless. It boasts a unique ecosystem, including various plants and animals that have adapted to survive with minimal water. 

Some areas of the desert burst into a riot of color and life during rare rainfalls, showcasing a phenomenon known as “desierto florido” or “flowering desert.”

The Atacama is also known for its breathtaking landscapes, from vast salt flats and high-altitude lakes to geysers and sand dunes. 

Culturally and historically, the Atacama Desert has been inhabited by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years, with a rich heritage that is evident in the archaeological sites scattered throughout the area. 

These include ancient geoglyphs, mummified remains, and ruins of old mining towns, telling tales of a human presence that has endured in this seemingly inhospitable landscape for millennia.

In recent times, the desert has been at the center of economic activities, notably mining. It is a prime source of copper and lithium, playing a crucial role in the global economy and the burgeoning renewable energy sector. 

This extraction, however, raises environmental and social concerns, highlighting the need for sustainable practices in exploiting these valuable resources.

Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory 

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