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Atacama, Once A Paradise!

Byline: James H, Young Editor

Deserts are not the most comfortable place to be in. Very few organisms can survive the dry air, lack of rain, little vegetation, and intense heat.

But would you believe that a desert could once sustain as much life as a lake? It's true! In fact, scientists have found remains of freshwater plants and animals in the driest place on the planet, the Atacama Desert.

Where Is Atacama?

The Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru stretches almost parallel along the Pacific Coast for about 600 miles (1,000km). The average elevation (height) is 13,000 feet (4km) making it the highest desert in the world. Outside the polar regions, this area is also one of the coldest deserts with temperatures averaging between 0 and 25 degree Celsius. The Atacama Desert is also known as the driest place on Earth, for it gets only an average of 15 millimeters of rainfall per year. In some areas, it doesn't rain at all!

On first sight, this piece of land is made of mostly sand and salt. But underneath the sand, researchers have found organic matter of plants and animals that can only be found living in or near freshwater sources. And that's not all - they have also found evidence of human settlement in this region.

Archeologists believe that people could just have migrated through this desert. But there's also a possibility that people could have lived here between 17,000 and 9,000 years ago when water was plenty. However, scientists don't think that direct rainfall on the desert region caused the water to appear. Instead, they think the answer is the Central Andean Pluvial Events, the theory that at one point, there was more rain in the Andes Mountains, and that water trickled into the Atacama Desert.

Is This True Of Other Deserts?

Could other deserts also have once supported more life than they do today? The answer is yes!

Before they became deserts, their environments were suitable for plant and animal life, especially life that needs water to survive. For example, cave paintings found in the Sahara Desert depict images of crocodiles - the Sahara might have been a swamp 6000 years ago! The Great Victoria Desert in Australia would have been a rain forest a few million years ago! Even Antarctica (yes, Antarctica is considered a desert!) is discovered to have supported life of a temperate rain forest 3 million years ago.

Imagine that - if these deserts did not become deserts, what would they be like today? Check out this BBC video on the Atacama.

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Title Annotation:Our Earth
Geographic Code:3CHIL
Date:Jan 3, 2017
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