The Atacama Desert
Exclusive of the largest mountain ranges and oceans, earth’s most well-known physical features are its great desert regions. The word desert often conjures up ideas of open expanses of sand and towering dunes blown by perpetual wind and dust storms. Moreover, deserts are often categorized as being strictly sandy, hot, and extremely dry. Only part of this assumption is correct. Furthermore, the categorizing of deserts as such illustrates how little knowledge many people in fact have of desert regions of the earth.
The notion that all deserts are hot and sandy is especially erroneous. The surrounding landforms, air temperature, and soil composition have no bearing on whether or not a climate region is classified as a dessert. The sole characteristic used in classifying climate regions as a desert is aridity; a lack of moisture (Cressy 390). Deserts can be defined as regions where less than 10 inches of liquid equivalent precipitation falls each year. A better definition is any climatic region where evaporation substantially exceeds precipitation for most of the year (Cressey 390). Thus, based on this definition it is clear that deserts are not regulated to hot low latitude regions of the earth.
Deserts are found at all latitudes, and encompass all air temperature ranges found on earth. Deserts types range from hot hyper-arid deserts such as the Sahara to less known and rather unusual cool coastal deserts such as the Atacama. Although the Atacama does embody hyper-arid characteristics, the Atacama Desert is generally classified as a cool coastal desert. The remainder of this paper will focus specifically on the physical characteristics of the Atacama Desert.
Located in northern Chile and extreme southern Peru, the Atacama Desert is located is perhaps the most unique physiographic location on earth. (Clarke 101) Many topographic features of northern Chile are exclusive to the Atacama Desert; that is they are found in no other place on earth. The Atacama Desert lies between two mountain ranges on the west coast of South America, the Coastal Cordillera and the Andean Cordillera. The Coastal Cordillera ranges in elevation from 500 to 3000 meters (Boa, Jenkins, Khachaturyan, and Diaz 577), and the Andean Cordillera ranges in elevation from 5000 to 6000 meters.
Between the two mountain ranges lies what is called the Central Depression (Boa, Jenkins, Khachaturyan, and Diaz 577). The Central Depression is a valley, not unlike the central valley of California. The Central Depression is void of hydrologic processes (Boa, Jenkins, Khachaturyan, and Diaz 577), and is where the Atacama’s hyper-arid conditions occur. At an elevation of 2300 meters (Dransart 304), the Central Depression is also the site of the Salar de Atacama. The Salar de Atacama (salt flat) is a large salt-covered basin floor lying between the Coastal Cordillera and the Andean Cordillera at the north end of the Atacama Desert (Dransart 304)....