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Published Saturday, November 17, 2018
After not experiencing any meaningful amounts of precipitation for at least 500 years, Chile’s Atacama Desert is finally getting some rain. Quite unexpectedly, however, these rains, instead of fostering life, are doing the exact opposite.
Located in northern Chile, the 105,000 square kilometer Atacama Desert is one of the oldest and driest deserts on Earth, and it’s been this way for 150 million years. This desert features a hyperarid core, with climate models predicting major rainfall events at a paltry rate of once per century. That said, no significant rainfall had been recorded in this region for the past 500 years.
Since 2015, this desert has experienced three significant rainfall events, two in 2015 and one in 2017. Water from these rains collected in super-salty lagoons, which lingered for several months before dissipating. In light of these unprecedented meteorological events, a team of astrobiologists from Cornell University and Spain’s Center for Astrobiology (CAB) visited Atacama to see how the rains and these hypersaline lagoons may have affected microbial life in this exceptionally arid place.
“Here we show that the sudden and massive input of water in regions that have remained hyperarid for millions of years is harmful for most of the surface soil microbial species, which are exquisitely adapted to survive with meager amounts of liquid water, and quickly perish from osmotic shock when water becomes suddenly abundant,” the authors write in the study.
“The hyperdry soils before the rains were inhabited by up to 16 different, ancient microbe species,” said Alberto G. Fairén, an astrobiologist at Cornell and a co-author of the new study, in a statement. “After it rained, there were only two to four microbe species found in the lagoons,” said Fairen, who is also a researcher with the Centro de Astrobiología, Madrid. “The extinction event was massive.”
Atacama Rain Facts
Affected Area: 50 km.
Alert Level: Green