Driest place on Earth: Atacama desert in Chile buried under feet of snow

Atacama Desert

Weather Post by Dr. Ryan Maue

The Atacama desert in Chile described as the driest place on Earth just got walloped by an extreme cold front (climate change) and was buried in snow.

From NDTV: (with video coverage)

According to the national emergency centre in Chile, the area had not seen this amount of snow in close to 20 years.  Some areas received up to 80 centimeters (32 inches) of snow, leading to closed roads and stuck vehicles.  The temperature in Santiago, Chile dropped to as low as -8.5 degrees Celsius on Wednesday.   Other countries in Latin America such as Uruguay and Argentina have also been affected by the cold front.

Indeed, temperatures over much of middle-latitudes South America have been averaging 5°-10° C below normal for the past week.

From Wikipedia’s excellent article on the Atacama Desert:

Some parts of Atacama Desert, especially, surroundings of the abandoned Yungay town(in Antofagasta Region, Chile) are arguably the driest places on Earth,and are virtually sterile because they are blocked from moisture on both sides by the Andes mountains and by the Chilean Coast Range. A coastal inversion layer created by the cold Humboldt Current and the anticyclone of the Pacific is essential to keeping the climate of the Atacama dry. The average rainfall in the Chilean region of Antofagasta is just 1 millimetre (0.04 in) per year. Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain. Evidence suggests that the Atacama may not have had any significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971. It is so arid that mountains that reach as high as 6,885 metres (22,589 ft) are completely free of glaciers and, in the southern part from 25°S to 27°S, may have been glacier-free throughout the Quaternary, though permafrost extends down to an altitude of 4,400 metres (14,400 ft) and is continuous above 5,600 metres (18,400 ft). Studies by a group of British scientists have suggested that some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.

—-

In order to get moisture into the desert, it must get into the so-called rainshadow.  A possible route is from the NNW, which would require a slug of high-precipitable water or moist air to travel poleward along the South American west coast.  Currently, a cut-off low or upper-level potential vorticity anomaly is spinning happily off the Chilean coast — and the clockwise flow (cyclonic in the Southern Hemisphere) is distinctly opposite to the typical anti-cyclone situated in that location.  From the most recent week of Precipitable Water animation:  all sorts of extreme weather can be found, including Tropical Storm Arlene, it’s landfall and remnants flooding the American Southwest (thunderstorms fueling haboobs), as well as the Atacama snowfall.  Click on the image to watch the last week (Java Animation) of precipitable water and low-level wind flow from FSU Maps site.

Atmospheric Precipitable Water (inches) from NCEP CDAS1 (Real-Time CFS Reanalysis): Click for 4 time daily animation of last week.

The July 7, 00Z NCEP GFS global model forecast has additional snowfall for Chile during the next week:  Image Link

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68 thoughts on “Driest place on Earth: Atacama desert in Chile buried under feet of snow

  1. Interestingly, they have mega floods every couple hundred years. That’s a theory of the Nazca lines, that they were too appease the gods of these floods? Some of the lines actually look like the flood channels.

  2. I blame the Chinese coal fired power stations combining with CO2 and drowning polar bears.

  3. Ryan M. asks: “So, what happened?”
    The Null hypothesis is that all the moisture headed for San Francisco took a wrong turn at Cucamunga (consistent with CAGW models, natch) and wound up getting dumped on the Atacama Desert. ;o)

  4. Oh dear, another unprecedented event – well, unprecedented for 20 years: better all sign up to Greenpiss!

  5. “The Atacama desert in Chile is mistakenly described as the driest place on Earth”
    Fixed that for ya! Antarctica contains the driest place on Earth.

  6. More proof of extra moisture in the ir just as an ensemble of models predicted. See they really do work. /sarc

  7. Ryan,
    Your map shows that it would suck to be vacationing in central America right now.
    All that precipitation!

  8. 20 years? What’s the big deal! We might be able to beat that on the opposite side of the hemisphere with Perth facing its longest cold spell in 25 years: Berniel.
    HA !!! not after the BOM has ‘fixed it’. the sad part is that when cold hits more energy is used to warm our homes and offices. Cold kills. Warmth causes tourism.
    As we cool more CO2 will be absorbed by the oceans, rain also washes CO2 out of the atmosphere so our increased energy use may not show up in atmospheric levels. will be interesting time the next 20 years.
    regards

  9. When I learned basic meteorology at school it said that extreme weather is usually caused by cold air meeting warm seas.
    Maybe CO2 emissions changed this…

  10. Dave Springer says: “The Atacama desert in Chile is mistakenly described as the driest place on Earth”
    Fixed that for ya! Antarctica contains the driest place on Earth.

    You haven’t seen my former lawn. We’re 20 inches down for the year.
    Mike in Houston.

  11. Twenty years, wow. Well, northeast of the continent is going through a run of warmth not seen in de meteorological record.

  12. very cold in australia perth coldest in 25 years snowy mountains up to 90 cm snow 36 hrs very cold along all eastern australia

  13. Actually, as usual, the media got this wrong. The driest place on earth is a huge valley in Antarctica where it is so dry (Freeze dried air!) that it never snows, there is no ice and anything that wanders into it dies of dehydration – the corpse is also mummified.
    The Atacama may be dry, but it still gets the occasional rain and snow.
    Says it all really, when it comes to facts the media can’t get anything right.

  14. “Indeed, temperatures over much of middle-latitudes South America have been averaging 5°-10° C below normal for the past week.”
    The “new normal”?
    Let’s check the climate science algorithm to see if it’s “climate” or “weather”…

    if (temperatures > “normal”) then
    OMG – it’s catastrophic climate change!!! Our computer models were right – we’re all gonna die!
    else
    Meh. It’s just weather…

    So, it’s just weather (though interesting weather, nonetheless).

  15. Dave Springer says:
    Small point Dave. The Atacama desert has the driest place on Earth. There are some places there where it has never rained in recorded history. Antarctica is the driest continent on average, but it still snows at all locations there, at least a little.

  16. Now if archaeologists can only discover some coal burning plants dating to MIS 5e, all will be explained.

  17. A mate of mine has a Landrover in Antofagasta – they’re good in the snow. I’m sure he’d rent it out for a beer or two!

  18. It seems a bit odd that despite the post not mentioning climate change that all the responders here went there. It almost seems a bit of a knee-jerk response when all it does is seem to confirm the frequent weather vs climate confusion so often in evidence.

  19. I was there just a few weeks before their last storm hit the Atacama–they had about 3 feet of snow in an area where I saw only a few green plants; the rest of it was just sand, gravel and rock (along with a precious metals mine we were expanding). But even that wasn’t unprecedented–such storms happen every several decades in the Atacama but make little or no impact on the biosphere due to their highly infrequent occurrence.

  20. The other place with a claim to being the driest place on Earth is the Dry Valleys in Antartica that haven’t seen rainfall in 2 million years. Driest doesn’t mean hottest as some posters seem to think.

  21. I am working with a salt company that operates a mine in northern Chile. Normally exporting de-icing salt to exotic places like New York, Baltimore and Boston – now the bad weather comes here right to us. If global warming continues like that, we will sell all-year long! Thank you, Mr. Gore!
    In northern Chile a lot of people are affected by the snow/rain & cold, as the houses are not at all made for this.

  22. “The Atacama desert in Chile described as the driest place on Earth just got walloped by an extreme cold front (climate change) and was buried in snow…”
    I thought that the interior region of the Antarctic known as The Dry Valleys was the driest place on Earth. They’ve had no rainfall in over two million years!

  23. I Have worked in the Atacama desert several times. It is not uncommon to get rain or snow there. Although not often or to any “schedule” but once a year is not “historic”. It rained for 24 hours while I was there and it was a heavy rain (3 to 5 inches) A government geologist working out of the same camp said he recently witnessed a meter of snow in one day (I think it was the year before).

  24. Dear Anthony: A very important post. Hope the more educated Wattsupwiththat regulars will have a say on this phenomenon, which is obviously part of the “interesting times” we are living in.
    Now, in a more relaxed manner, we could explain this phenomenon as the consequence of the visit and “lectures” of the Global Warming famous preacher, Al Gore, during last SH summer, to Peru and Chile, when we were warned by his wise words of the dissappearence of all the Andean glaciers, and, consequently, a generalized drought in the Amazon basin and lack of drinking water.

  25. SteveE says:
    July 7, 2011 at 5:16 am
    Driest doesn’t mean hottest as some posters seem to think.
    You are absolutely right: Hottest means Wettest.(a tropical and rainy climate). Your recent record floodings, in the US, were the consequence of more accumulated snow during one of the hardest winter you have had.

  26. The typical Marine West coast regime is far equatorward vs normal in the SH. Same as the NH. On that note, I see some interesting things in the US forecast maps and progs. Presently, there are PoPs for over 80% of the CONUS! 48 hours out there is snow prog’ed for the Northern Rockies, just north of the Canadian border. Out at Monday 11-JUL I see a rather robust West Coast trough prog’ed. Is climatic Fall here already in the NH?

  27. “In order to get moisture into the desert, it must get into the so-called rainshadow. A possible route is from the NNW, which would require a slug of high-precipitable water or moist air to travel poleward along the South American west coast. Currently, a cut-off low or upper-level potential vorticity anomaly is spinning happily off the Chilean coast — and the clockwise flow (cyclonic in the Southern Hemisphere) is distinctly opposite to the typical anti-cyclone situated in that location.”
    Another author who would benefit from reading Leroux…

  28. I took the train from La Paz to Arica in 1969. The closer we got to the summit the drier and more desolate became the landscape, but the funny thing was: foot prints were everywhere! As far as I could figure these were the prints of the people who laid the tracks a hundred years before.
    In Arica a rare mist blew in from the sea and put the phones and power out of operation. They don’t bother with waterproof insulators there–it NEVER rains. If Bolivia wants to get its coast back all it needs is a few water balloons in its arsenal. –AGF

  29. Is there any better information about this event than this vague NDTV article? Did it snow everywhere in that desert? Did it snow in the driest places and if so, how much?

  30. I’m sure there is a carbon tax somewhere to fix that and provide reparations to the mining towns in the Atacama, and with only a nominal handling fee by the UN.

  31. and here I thought that the dry valleys in Antarctica were the driest places on earth (no recorded moisture in two million years).

  32. Dave Springer says:
    July 7, 2011 at 3:08 am
    “The Atacama desert in Chile is mistakenly described as the driest place on Earth”
    Fixed that for ya! Antarctica contains the driest place on Earth.
    That will be due to the Katabatic winds Then.

  33. This event is not inconsistent with natural variability, nor is it inconsistent with the expected acceleration of the hydrological cycle that always accompanies higher levels of CO2. Not enough information to say if this event has been even partially created by the 40% greater amount of CO2 in the atmosphere than was present a few hundred years ago, but this is how the planet has responded to higher CO2 levels for millions of years…lots of CO2 will be removed from the atmosphere by the weathering of the rocks and soils by moisture falling on this desert…not enough to counter the billions of tons that humans are adding each year, but this is one way through negative feedback that CO2 is removed from the atmosphere.

  34. Arica is fed by a perennial stream, so it is clear that the upper elevations get a little rain or snow. You can see on Google Earth. I suspect that the places that got snowed aren’t part of the driest desert. Maybe we can get some recent satellite pictures. –AGF

  35. Checking out Wiki. and its sources, it’s pretty clear that the Atacama has Antarctica beat easily–places where there has been no rain for a hundred thousand years. The nitrates were there to be mined because they never got flushed. GOES satellite picture shows no snow except on the Cordillera, but there’s still too much cloud cover to tell further south: http://www.goes.noaa.gov/FULLDISK/GEVS.JPG

  36. Why are there any literate, numerate, scientific, people who still believe this CAGW baloney?

  37. I went to Arica in northern Chile a few years ago and read that it had never rained there in records going back decades-centuries. The first morning I was there there was a little cloud and it started raining, yes drops falling from the sky- for about 10 minutes, enough to wet the pavement but probably not register. I tend to doubt these ‘never happened’ stories.

  38. the area had not seen this amount of snow in close to 20 years.

    In other words, “same thing happened 20 years ago”. So … not all that unusual.

  39. ATTN: R.Gates
    FYI: Since 1900, the 40% increase in the concentration of CO2 in a cubic meter of bone-dry air at sea level and at 0 deg C is 0.0002 kg (110ml) of CO2. One cubic meter (1,000,000 ml) of dry air at STP has a mass of 1.29 kg. The climate scientists are claiming that the addition of 0.00012 kg of CO2 to a cubic meter of dry air at STP since 1975 to present is the main cause of “global warming.” Real air always has water vapor and in it the conc of CO2 is less and is a function of specific humidity.
    Go to Universal Industrial Gases Inc.’s web page at: http://www.uigi.com/air.html and study the tables and learn how temp, pressure and humidity affect the properties of air.
    The amount ( i.e., mass) of CO2 in real air and in particular in tropical air is much less than is indicated by gas analysis. Moreover in real air there is no uniform distribution of mass in space and time as shown by weather maps.
    You will never ever convince this chemist that CO2 has any significant influence on weather and climate.

  40. The Antarctic dry valleys have no long term weather stations, so the claim that it gets less precipitation than, say, Quillagua in Chile is unproven. Quillagua reportedly received only 5mm of rainfall in 37 years.

  41. Harold Pierce Jr says:
    July 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm
    “ATTN: R.Gates
    You will never ever convince this chemist that CO2 has any significant influence on weather and climate.”
    ___
    So Fred, what you are saying is we could remove all CO2 from the atmosphere (and except for all plant life dying) it would have no significant effect on our weather and climate. Is that your contention? Essentially CO2 is there just to support plant life?
    Oddly, CO2 is the primary non-condensing greenhouse gas on earth. This feature makes it very useful as its greenhouse properties are not diminished over the normal pressure and temperature changes found on this planet, which is not true for water vapor, which gets increasingly thin in the atmosphere with cooling, so that over places like the desert and Antarctica, we’ve hardly got any water vapor at all whereas we’ve got about the same level of CO2 over these regions as we have anywhere else.
    As you are so into chemistry, perhaps you ought to do a post about the difference between condensing (i.e. water vapor) and non-condensing (i.e. CO2) GH gases, and while your at it, perhaps add the rock weathering-CO2 connection in there so explain how CO2 is regulated by rock weathering over millions of years. Odd that something that has no effect on the weather and climate would be regulated so well (excluding the current human addition) via negative feedback mechanisms that inhibit CO2 from getting beyond certain levels.

  42. I’m a bit perplexed The Wikipedia article says is so dry here they’ve never recorded rain, yet, the article indicated this is the greatest snowfall in 20 years?

  43. One thing i noticed today in driving between Rachel and Caliente, Nevada. There were several places with an absolute hoard of very young Joshua trees mixed in with very old ones with no “middle aged” ones in between. I know you can’t tell the exact age of a Joshua tree by looking at it, but what I mean to say is, there were dozens of small ones with only a single spike maybe knee to belt high. There were also several that were very old with large trunks and several branches. But there were none to only a very few with maybe only a few branches in addition to the central spike.
    This would seem to imply that conditions in that area are currently very good for Joshua trees as they must have been some time ago in the past, but there has been an intervening period where conditions must not have been good for them to take root. I did not see many dead trees. I did see a few, but they were in too poor of a condition to be able to judge their age as I drove past them.
    Also, if anyone is interested in some tree rings for rain proxy, there was apparently a fire at some point in the not so distant past in the Inyo National Forest on hwy 120 between Mono Lake and Benton. The forest service has several good size trees cut down and cut in chunks. Would be a nice place to collect an entire cross section maybe up to three feed in diameter from the Eastern Sierra,.

  44. Looks like it was 8 deg F below freezing at the Santiago airport this week. Could have been a little colder at other locations. Has been well below average for 95% of the time for at a couple of weeks. Look at the graph and see for yourself.
    http://www.wunderground.com/history/airport/SCEL/2011/7/5/WeeklyHistory.html
    Their are no villages or weather stations in the driest regions of the Atacama. It is a region that is much larger than the Mojave. Border areas do get some rain and snow. It is like Sequim in Wa. state. It almost never rains there. Fifteen or twenty miles in any direction, and it rains MOST of the time.

  45. “Some weather stations in the Atacama have never received rain.”
    And they have been there how long? If i’d started my own weather station here at the weekend i’d also have had a weather station with no recorded rainfall in it’s history.

  46. Another round of winter weather hopscotch, and a foreshadowing of what’s to hit the N. Hemisphere this winter. What was it last year? Oh yeah, Antarctic Blast made it 2 degrees north of the Equator, killing people, livestock, and jungle animals (to the tune of hundreds, tens of thousands and millions respectively).

  47. We recall a Natural Geographic feature some years back that distinguished between actual precipitation and light dew within the Atacama. As Pacific Ocean airs evaporate, rising winds sweep up the western Andean escarpment to absorb heat from the Atacama’s desert sun, briefly depositing a moisture-laden film sufficient to nourish well-adapted insects and small-scale plants another day.
    Brutally cold and lifeless Antarctic valleys experience no such surcease. Despite the Chilean desert’s appearances plus desiccation over geophysical time-spans, we’d accordingly put Antarctica before the Atacama in terms of “driest region.”

  48. Harold Pierce Jr says:
    July 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    Go to Universal Industrial Gases Inc.’s web page at: http://www.uigi.com/air.html and study the tables and learn how temp, pressure and humidity affect the properties of air.

    Nice page, but it would be a lot better if they had CO2 and H2O IR absorption spectra data.

    The amount ( i.e., mass) of CO2 in real air and in particular in tropical air is much less than is indicated by gas analysis. Moreover in real air there is no uniform distribution of mass in space and time as shown by weather maps.

    That web page doesn’t say that, near as I can tell. Why do you refer to space and time I don’ think there is any dispute that CO2 levels at Mauna Kea are rising. and year over year values are increasing.

    You will never ever convince this chemist that CO2 has any significant influence on weather and climate.

    I mostly agree with that sentiment, but the reason for that stance has less to do with CO2
    concentrations and more to do with convection and cloud cover.

  49. Steve R says:
    July 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    I’m a bit perplexed The Wikipedia article says is so dry here they’ve never recorded rain, yet, the article indicated this is the greatest snowfall in 20 years?

    You get what you pay for.

  50. All rainfall stations in the Atacama Desert HAVE recorded rainfall .The driest is 0.6 mm per annum at Quillagua but the year when all rainfall stations in Chile recorded rainfall but we had no reports from this station implying that this station gets slightly higher mean rainfall .Moreover it should be mentioned that that this station was situated in a school .

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