Atacama Desert Blooms

John Morgan, July 2006

John Morgan, July 2006

Back in July 2006, when I was still in college at Marshall, I went on a mission trip to Arequipa, Peru.  Situated on the northern edge of the Atacama Desert, Arequipa is an alien environment compared to good ol' West Virginia.  In fact, parts of the Atacama Desert have been compared to Mars, and some places have not had rainfall for over 400 years (as long as humans have been keeping records)!

However, right now parts of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, is experiencing a riot of color as a rare springtime bloom of flowers covers every hillside. The explosion of color is the result of rains that swept through the region earlier this year, watering seeds that had lain dormant in the ground for years.

The Atacama Desert typically gets just 0.6 inches a year in rainfall, though some places in the region, such as Arica, receive even less, experiencing between 0.04 and 0.12 inches of rain a year. Most of the time, the desert is an otherworldly, forbidding landscape of steep, rocky hillsides, salt lakes and old lava flows. However, this year, the heaviest rains in two decades hit the region, causing mudslides and overflowing rivers that killed 28 people. In one day in March alone, the town of Antofagasta, Chile was battered with 0.9 inches (23 mm) of rain, the equivalent of seven years of precipitation, turning the entire town into a river of mud, according to The Weather Channel.

Those rare winter rains also watered the parched landscape, nourishing flower seeds that had been buried in the ground for years, centuries even. The result? A dazzling carpet of pinks, oranges, yellows and purples as far as the eye can see. The explosion of color has also been a bonanza for the other hardy species that live in the arid landscape. Rodents, lizards, birds and various insects have all been drawn to feast on the 200 plant species that appeared.

"It occurred in a very particular way because we have not had such a large flowering in the past 18 years. In 2010, we had a long flowering but already this year, 2015, has surpassed all the previous ones," Rodrigo Ruiz, acting regional director of Chile's National Tourism Service.

Typically, blooms like this occur every five to 10 years due to the lack of rainfall. Those hoping to see the rare blooms in person have just a few more weeks, as the flowers typically begin to die off in early November.