Blooming in the Atacama Desert: the flowers of climate change

Locally known as “Desierto Florido,” the occasional flower bloom that takes place in the Atacama Desert in the spring is becoming more frequent. The flowering desert is also now attracting an increasing number of tourists. In response, the government is taking action to preserve the breathtaking vistas.

Spring brings warmer temperatures, longer days, and colorful landscapes. This year’s spring also brings a burst of blossoming flowers to the Atacama Desert, the most arid non-polar desert in the world, and primarily characterized by barren, rocky terrain, salares (salt lakes), sand, and felsic lava fields.

The Atacama typically receives less than 12 mm (0.47 in) of rain per year. Its aridity is explained by its location between two mountain chains, the Andes and the Chilean Coast Range, which inhibit rain clouds from both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

In the last few years, however, rainfall has been unusually high. The increase is a consequence of the “El Niño” phenomenon, an irregular periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures that develops off the western coasts of South America. Rising sea temperatures lead to an increase in evaporation, which, in turn, results in more precipitation. As climate change intensifies the frequency of El Niño events, the previously occasional springtime bloom in the Atacama, referred to as the Desierto Florido (“flowerful desert”), has recently become a reoccurring event year after year.

Once the winter rain stops, the flowering process starts at the end of August and lasts until November. The sandy soils become punctuated with colorful and evocative-named flowering plants, including red and yellow añañucas, white huillis, pata de guanaco with fuchsia flowers, light blue and lilac suspiros, white and blue malvillas, coronas de friale (friar’s crowns), senecios (ragwort), lilies, cartuchos amarillos, copiapoas, garras de león (lion’s paw), and fuzzy orejas de zorro (fox ears).

The Desierto Florido significantly boosts the local economy. As the phenomenon is quite unique, visitors from all over the world visit the Atacama region. It is possible to observe the phenomenon from various points around the southern points of the Atacama region, such as Huasco, Vallenar, La Serena, Copiapó and Caldera.

Moreover, the significance of the flowering desert has been recognized worldwide. The Chilean government has also declared it a national natural heritage site and aims to have it acknowledged as a Heritage of Humanity site by UNESCO.

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