El Niño Transforms World's Driest Non-Polar Desert Into A Lush Wildflower Wonderland


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Atacama desert view before sunset (Photo Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Deserts are by definition barren areas of land with little precipitation. But few compare to Chile's Atacama Desert. Often called the world's driest non-polar desert, the 600-mile stretch of land gets an average of just 0.13 inches of rain annually, despite its location next to our planet's largest body of water, the Pacific Ocean.

The dry weather is caused by a combination of factors, the most important of which is the desert's location in the rain shadow of two mountain ranges - The Andes and the Chilean Coast Range. Also a factor is the Pacific Anticyclone winds that blow cold, dry air into the Atacama.

Image Credit: permaculturenews.org

However, though they are extremely effective in blocking moisture during normal years, 2015 is not a typical year, thanks to El Niño. The climate pattern is encountered every five to seven years when the water in the Pacific Ocean near the equator becomes warmer than normal. The higher temperature impacts atmospheric conditions and weather around the world resulting in unusual and extreme weather that ranges from droughts to severe storms.

Atacama's first El Niño induced thunderstorms in March soaked the area with an astounding 0.88 inches or almost 14 years of rain in less than 12 hours. Though the 'heavy' downpour would have been easily absorbed by the ground in most areas of the world, this was not the case here. That's because the extreme dryness has turned Atacama's ground into hard non-porous rock. With no place to go, the water caused the usually dry Copiapo River bed to swell and flood, resulting in several deaths. To make matter worse, a second storm drenched the area in mid-August causing additional flash flooding and damage.

But, it is not all bad news. The heavy rains also helped sprout the hardy seeds that lie dormant in the hard, dry soil and transform the normally drab desert into a lush carpet of wildflowers. While El Niño instigated blossoms are encountered every five to seven years, this year's flowering, which is expected to last until late November, is being touted as the most spectacular of the past 18 years. In addition to attracting thousands of tourists, the beautiful bloom has also brought insects, lizards and birds - A rare treat for this dry and arid ecosystem.

The Chilean desert is not the only region affected by El Niño. It has also brought unusually heavy rains and caused extensive flooding and damage at Death Valley National Park in the U.S. states of California and Nevada.

Photo Credit: EPA/Mario Ruiz

And there is more to come. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) the 2015 El Niño, which is already the strongest in 15 years, is going to intensify further in the next few months. WMO Secretary-General Michel Jarraud says the weather pattern combined with human-induced climate change will result in hotter heatwaves, place more areas at the risk of flooding, and increase the strength and frequency of storms - So stay tuned!

Resources: techtimes.com, washingtonpost.com, accuweather.com,independent.co.uk

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