The Atacama Desert in Chile, known as the driest place on Earth, is awash with color after a year’s worth of extreme rainfall.
In an average year, this desert is a very dry place. Arica, Chile, in the northern Atacama holds the world record for the longest dry streak, having gone 173 months without a drop of rain in the early 20th century. In another Atacama neighbor to the south of Arica, the average annual rainfall in the city of Antofagasta is just 0.07 inches.
But strong El Niño years can be a rainy boom for the region, located just to the east of the warmest ocean water on the globe. In March, heavy thunderstorms brought 0.96 inches of rain in one day to parts of the Atacama Desert. This doesn’t seem like that much, but it was a huge rainfall event for the desert — over 14 years of rain in one day. The torrent caused the typically dry Copiapo River to swell far beyond its banks. Flooding killed at least nine people that day.
As El Niño strengthens, so does the rainfall increases across South America. As areas of low pressure swing east into the Andes Mountains, the usually warm waters off the coast provide more than enough water vapor to fuel extreme rainfall events.
The malva (or mallow) flowers on the floor of the Atacama desert bloom every five to seven years, usually coinciding with El Nino. But they have been taking advantage of this year’s particularly rainy conditions, leading to the “most spectacular blossoming of the past 18 years.”
Interestingly, Death Valley has also been overflowing this month. The official weather station at Death Valley National Park recorded 0.55 inches of rain on Oct. 5. That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a bucket-load for the world’s hottest location — enough to tie the wettest 24-hour period on record in the month of October.
“A series of unusual storms in October caused large amounts of damage throughout Death Valley National Park,” park officials wrote on Facebook. “Flash floods destroyed significant portions of multiple roads and heavily damaged several historic structures at Scotty’s Castle and deposited debris in Devils Hole.”
The Death Valley National Historic Association has set up a fund to help restore some of these damaged historic locations.
By Angela Fritz who is an atmospheric scientist and The Post's deputy weather editor.
With many thanks to The Washington Post.
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