Flowered Desert

Article by Thomas Ingerson

The Atacama desert on the western coast of South America is the driest in the world. There are sites here where there has been no rainfall in recorded history and erosion occurs primarily from the wind. Such places look like the surface of Mars and there is almost no trace of life.

If rain occurs only once in a thousand years, it will fall uselessly on sterile soil. However, if the interval between rains is a decade or even a generation, life often manages to hang on. Seeds and bulbs may lie dormant in the soil for lengthy periods, waiting for their chance to reproduce. When enough rain comes, they germinate, grow rapidly and the desert turns into a garden. Flowers bloom, seeds form and are spread. Then everything dies and awaits the next opportunity after one, five or thirty years. For a few weeks the desert is an astonishing spectacle. Not just a few flowers, but thousands of individuals of each species tend to bloom simultaneously. Species often flower in sequence, so that sometimes a valley will be purple one day, yellow two weeks later and blue after that. In places a veritable carpet of color covers soil which appeared to be lifeless just a few weeks before.

The "Desierto Florido" (Flowering desert) is a remarkable phenomenon which usually takes place whe"El Niño" causes the ocean currents to shift and direct storms towards the desert. The finest manifestation of such a flowering usually occurs in northern Chile between the cities of La Serena and Copiapó. There were excellent floraciónes in 1991 and 1997. The 1997 event was one of the most powerful "El Niño" events in recorded history so that the desert was briefly full of flowers during September 1997, which was when most of the pictures on this page were taken. Another, lesser event occurred in September 2000 and as of this writing (August, 2002) after a very rainy winter, it is clear that there will be a major floración this year. Stay tuned.

In the south of the region, near La Serena, the median rainfall is about 50mm. This is enough to support a desert ecosystem, so that the area is covered with a low density of scruffy-looking bushes and in most years a few flowers appear in the wetter places. This desert bursts into color when rains are heavy. Towards the north, near Copiapó, annual rainfall is only a few mm so the hillsides are almost completely barren 99% of the time. This makes the contrast between what is usually there and what occurs during the rare "floraciones" more dramatic. North of Copiapó, the interval between rains is so long that seeds cannot not survive and flowers appear only in isolated places with special microclimates.

Tourists come to this part of Chile from all over the world to see the floración when the rains have been right. During the 1997 event, a number of friends and collegues asked for pictures of the flowers. Rather than clog their email in-basket with gratuitous photographs, I put this small gallery of pictures on our WWW site for the enjoyment of them and anyone else interested. I have left it on our WWW page since when a floración is not occurring, it is nice to be able to show people what it looks like.

In order to keep download time to a minimum, the images are broken up into groups of no more than 12 pictures. Each group contains a thumbnail image of each picture and some descriptive text. You can click on each thumbnail image to see the image in full resolution. With a decent Internet connection a group of thumbnail photos will download fairly quickly. Individual full resolution images will take a few seconds, depending on how fast your connection is. But don't fail to click on the image of Alstroemeria magnifica . Imagine yourself in the desert with countless numbers of such flowers as far as the eye can see and you will have an idea of why people get enthusiastic about the phenomenon and returned frequently to see the color while they still could.

Copyright: David Walker


Photo Galleries: