Chile’s flowering desert under threat from climate change

By Patricia Nieto Mariño

Caldera, Chile, Oct 15 (EFE).- Some call it a mystery, while others prefer “miracle.” At irregular intervals, Chile’s Atacama Desert – one of the driest spots on Earth – is covered with brightly colored flowers, but what is already a rare sight could disappear entirely as a result of climate change.

In years of higher-than-usual rainfall, seeds and bulbs of the Atacama’s hundreds of species of flower come to life, producing a vibrant spectacle that attracts tourists to the region 1,000 km (600 mi) north of Santiago.

Suspiros, patas de guanaco, añañucas, azulillos, coronas de fraile and malvillas are among the notable elements of this “explosion of biodiversity,” Cesar Pizarro, a biologist with Chile’s forest service, told Efe.

The bloom brings out a plethora of bird and insect species that are unique to the region and guanacos (related to llamas) can be seen grazing among the flowers.

“It is a very unusual event that shows how a desertic and barren environment conceals a great deal of hidden life,” Pizarro said.

The flowering, which it is at its most impressive across a 100 km stretch near the Pacific coast between the towns of Caldera and Chañaral, occurs every five to seven years, on average, usually in connection with the climate phenomenon known as El Niño.

In an El Niño year, the warming of the Pacific off South America spurs an increase in evaporation, leading in turn to greater precipitation.

But on this occasion, the Atacama bloom is not the result of El Niño, but of some extraordinary downpours in June.

Scientists warn that climate change, associated in South America with declining rainfall, could consign the flowering to memory.

This year’s bloom “was more localized and less intense” than previous one, La Serena University’s Andrea Loayza said.

“If the episodes of precipitation continue to decrease for several more decades, the phenomenon could fail to manifest itself,” she told Efe.

Chile is now suffering through its worst drought on record, with rainfall deficits of up to 90 percent in some areas.

Francisco Squeo, a biologist at the University of Chile, pointed out to Efe that the flower species of Atacama have survived for millions of years.

Nature, he said, is “very resilient and adaptive,” though going on to acknowledge that as recently as 200 years ago, the Atacama was four times wetter than it is now.

“If the temperature continues rising and the precipitation continues declining, many seeds will not be able to establish themselves and grow,” he said. “We hope that humanity will soon take steps to reduce climate change, but the question is whether the flowers can wait.”

The Atacama is rich in copper, Chile’s chief export, and has emerged as a prime location for astronomical observatories. The dry air is almost transparent, making it an ideal environment for telescopes.

But modern mines operate with a smaller workforce and after the construction phase, observatories don’t create many jobs for local residents, who have come to rely more and more on tourism to generate economic activity.

The business of catering to visitors has grown “explosively” in the Atacama over the last decade, Alejandro Martin, head of the regional office of the National Tourism Service, said.

And along with sand-duning and astronomy, the desert bloom is one of the main attractions, geologist and tour guide Sebastian Gonzalez told Efe.

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