The Atacama Desert, in Chile, is considered the driest non-polar place on Earth. It holds the record for the site where the longest time has passed without rain. It happened at the beginning of the 20th century, when they passed 173 months without falling a single drop of water. However, even in the driest of places it rains from time to time. And, when it does, the vegetation reacts to that minimal aqueous stimulus, seeding its cracked soils with a colorful flower mantle.
This phenomenon, known as flowerful desert, causes the fascination of scientists, but also of the rest of the mortals. When it happens, Chilean cities, like Copiapo, are filled with tourists willing to see how nature makes its way in this inhospitable place.
But why does it happen? This is a question that has been asked by many naturalists for centuries. Little by little they have been giving answers. As it seems to be associated with the phenomenon of The child. That is precisely why it is difficult to predict in time. Other deserts in the world have similar phenomena, but with well-established annual flowering periods. In this case, however, it depends on how the child has behaved in recent months.
History of flowers in the Atacama desert
The first scientists to study the phenomenon of the flowering desert were the Spanish botanists Hipólito Ruiz López and José Antonio Pavón and Jiménez, who collected several flower samples from the Atacama desert during the so-called Botanical Expedition to the Viceroyalty of Peru, in 1777.
Years later, his findings reached the ears of the French naturalist Claudio Gay, who in 1831 headed to Chile to study the phenomenon himself. Unfortunately, that had been a year of droughts, so he had no choice but to take advantage of the trip studying cacti.
But he did not give up. Five years later he returned to those lands and this time he did have the opportunity to see that mantle of pink, white, purple and yellow flowers that covered the Atacama desert. Over time, other scientists have continued to analyze the circumstances that lead to this curious bloom. Even in 2020 several studies were published on the interaction of these plants with the soil microbiota.
The affable face of El Niño
The child It is a climatological phenomenon associated with the warming of the waters of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. Together with La Niña, which corresponds to the cold phase, it constitutes one of the extremes of a climatic pattern, known as El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
In 2015 there was a particularly intense flowering
There is no exact pattern for either of these two extremes, so the events they usually trigger cannot be predicted long in advance either. Both propitiate the conditions for meteorological phenomena such as droughts, floods or hurricanes. In fact, all eyes are currently on the possible appearance of La Niña, which could extend the Atlantic hurricane season well into fall.
In the case of El Niño, it has been seen that the years that cause heavy rains in Chile are those in which the flowers in the Atacama desert.
Every year is different. Sometimes it’s just a few little buds. Others, a leafy colored carpet, that covers mainly the sandy mantles; but sometimes also the most stony substrates. One of the years in which this flowering was most intense was 2015. At that time, El Niño even caused 157.3 mm of rain to fall on the desert in a single day. These torrential rains resulted in intense flooding and several deaths in cities like Copiapó. It was a disgrace, but also the stimulus the soil needed for one of the most intense blooms ever documented in the area.
In fact, there were two of them, something very unusual. The first took place in March, at the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere. The second, more common, in October, which would be his spring. The flowering of plants was recorded as the field sighs (Nolana paradoxa), the añañuca (Rhodophiala rhodolirion), the lion’s claw (Bomarea ovallei) and the guanaco leg (Calandrinia longiscapa).
That year, some tourists who had planned their vacation in the area by chance they found a beautiful gift for the senses that they will never forget. In fact, the flowering desert tends to have positive implications for the economy, but also for ecosystems, as trophic webs are activated, including herbivores and pollinators.
But what will happen this year? For the moment, the weather conditions have been favorable and, in fact, it seems that the first outbreaks are already beginning to appear. Will we be able to see the flower-covered desert again? Time will tell. At least, for now, we know that El Niño doesn’t just leave devastation. It is a very clear example that after the storm comes calm.