In an average year, one would be hard pressed to find a more barren landscape than Chile's Atacama Desert. The world's driest non-polar desert, the usually barren Atacama is experiencing a dramatic transformation this year, thanks to El Niño. Beautiful pink mallow flowers and other plant species have emerged in the uncommonly moist soil, attracting lizards, insects, and birds to this temporary utopia.
The unfolding 2015-16 El Niño is one of the strongest events on record and contributed to the record-breaking wind intensity of Hurricane Patricia. In the United States, it is expected to bring needed rain to California and a warmer winter to the Midwest and Northeast. In Chile, this El Niño season has already brought heavy rain that has destroyed thousands of homes and killed many people. The heavy rain has also triggered the blossoming of desert wild flowers, a phenomenon that occurs every five to seven years. Due to the unprecedented power of this year’s El Niño, this year’s flowering display is particularly stunning.
The Atacama Desert is located along a 600-mile stretch of land west of the Andes mountains that also borders the Pacific Ocean. Parts of the desert are so uniquely dry and inhospitable that they have been used to emulate Mars, both in scientific research and film. Despite its challenges, the ecosystem is home to over 500 plant species and a diversity of wildlife. Flowering desert or “desierto forido,” is a phenomenon unique to the Chilean regions of the Atacama. The Chilean Atacama is expected to resume its usual barren state of affairs by the end of November. In the meantime, a blossoming rise in tourist activity is expected to aid in relief and reconstruction efforts as the region recovers from a brutal weather event.