Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by liam. liam Wonders, “atatcama” Thanks for WONDERing with us, liam!

Can you imagine what it would be like to live on Mars? How would you get the oxygen you need? What about water? Transportation would look quite different as you moved across the dry terrain. Luckily, there’s a place on Earth you could visit to experience arid conditions experts say are similar to those of the Red Planet. What are we talking about? The Atacama Desert, of course!

Where is the Atacama Desert? It stretches 600-700 miles (1,000-1,100 km) through the South American nation of Chile. It’s the world’s driest non-polar desert. It’s also the oldest! Experts say the inner core of the Atacama has been hyper-arid for at least 15 million years.

Why do scientists compare the Atacama Desert to Mars? The region has a very dry climate. The desert has even served as an extraterrestrial setting in movies. One well-known example is “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But its similarity to the Martian surface isn’t only useful for great Hollywood shots. Scientists believe studying this desert can help them learn what life could look like on Mars. 

How is that possible? Despite its dry climate, the Atacama Desert is home to some organisms. The inner core hosts only microbial life. Experts hope that studying these creatures can give them a look into how life might exist on other planets.

Outside of the inner core, you’ll find scorpions, desert wasps, and butterflies in the Atacama Desert. Grey foxes are also known to live there. Despite its general lack of rainfall, the Atacama is cooler than most deserts. Its average temperature is 66°F (19°C). This makes it a somewhat more comfortable home than you might expect.

Can people live in the world’s oldest desert? Yes! Over one million people currently do. In fact, the Atacama Desert has been inhabited for many years. The Atacameño people were the first known to dwell there. Today, people living in this desert grow olives, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Many also herd alpacas.

Visitors to the Atacama Desert are often struck by its geological features. Its inner core is made up of many large playas and salt deposits. There’s also a long strip of land called the Nitrate Belt. People have mined nitrate minerals there for many years. Many people also visit Rainbow Valley. There, mineral deposits give the sand green, pink, yellow, and blue hues.

The Atacama is also home to one of the world’s best spots for watching the night sky. The desert’s plateau has an elevation of 16,570 feet (5,050 meters) and up to 330 cloud-free nights per year. There, you’ll find a group of 66 telescopes. They’re used by international science organizations to look deep into the cosmos.

Have you ever been to the Atacama Desert? Does it sound like a place you’d like to visit? Would you like to study its interesting animal life? Its unique geology? Maybe you’d rather enjoy the view of outer space. There’s a lot to admire about the world’s driest desert!

Standards: C3.D2.Geo.4, C3.D2.Geo.6, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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