A new national park in Chile will protect 141,000 acres of biodiverse ecosystem in the Atacama Desert, where a rare superbloom paints one of the world’s most barren places with red, magenta, and marigold wildflowers. Last October’s impressive display, the first in five years, inspired the government to form northern Chile’s sixth national park, Desierto Florido.
This otherworldly landscape offers many wonders besides eye-popping flora.
The Atacama, the world’s driest nonpolar desert, brims with blooms that sprout every three to 10 years; the insects and birds that rely on them; and the microorganisms that flourish in the zone’s harsh, hyper-arid core. Many of these microbes hold clues about survival on an increasingly arid Earth, as well as the potential for life beyond it.
A top-to-bottom desert adventure provides the chance to admire and protect these resilient species and aid in the search for extraterrestrial life with a citizen science project, too.
Land of extremes
The 600-mile-long Atacama is wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains, both of which shield the desert’s core from precipitation. It’s nearly 50 times drier than Death Valley, and some weather stations here have yet to record a drop of rain.
In the past 40 years, the Atacama has seen an estimated 15 superblooms, according to the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. The phenomenon typically occurs between September and mid-November (the Southern Hemisphere’s spring). They often follow El Niño’s warm weather; winter’s heavy rains strip the protective coat from dormant seeds, which leads to their blossoming. The magnitude of October’s bloom surprised scientists, since it occurred after the lower-than-usual temperatures of La Niña.
(Learn why 2023 could be the year of the superbloom.)
We still have much to learn about Chile’s superbloom. According to a 2022 study in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, little is known about the eco-evolutionary process that desierto florido (flowering desert) triggers, such as how the plants have evolved to guarantee pollination during the rare and short blooming period.
The new park will lie near Chile’s northern coast, between the towns of Copiapó and Vallenar, says Verónica Kunze, undersecretary of tourism for the Chilean government.
In addition to its blooms, the park will give travelers a chance to explore the Atacama’s craggy southern coast, where peacock-blue waters shimmer. For astronomy fans, Atacama’s lustrous night skies give visitors rare peeks into the galaxy. “As long as you head to remote places, like Desierto Florido National Park, you’ll have fantastic stargazing,” says Timothy Dhalleine, guest engagement manager for Cascada Travel, a Chilean adventure outfitter.
A link between Earth and Mars
While preserving these blooms is important for the region’s ecosystems, Chilean microbiologist Cristina Dorador says protections should extend to the critical species we can’t see—microorganisms.
In the northern desert’s hyperarid core, microorganisms get savvy. They nestle inside rocks and survive off minuscule water droplets from overnight fog. “It’s a microhabitat; there’s a whole ecosystem inside a rock,” Dorador says. These microscopic adaptations can teach us a lot—including lessons about life on the red planet.
The Atacama core’s crusty salt flats and rugged valleys don’t just look Martian; in a way, they are. “The soil chemistry is quite similar,” says Dorador. That’s why astrobiologists research Atacama’s highly adaptable species to understand if life could exist elsewhere in the universe.
“In the Atacama, you can study the extreme of what at least Earth life can adapt to in terms of managing water,” says Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration program. Understanding the Atacama’s microscopic life forms has helped NASA decide where to send its Mars rovers, including Perseverance’s 2021 landing in the Jezero Crater, once an ancient river delta. “We know water was there once upon a time,” Meyer says.
Studies of the red planet and the Atacama help us do more than predict life in the cosmos. “Understanding life in a desert environment allows us to prepare for the future,” says Rodrigo Gutiérrez, a systems biologist studying survival mechanisms of microorganisms and plants in the desert.
(Discover why we explore Mars—and what decades of missions have revealed.)
With the Earth becoming increasingly drought-ridden—and more than a hundred countries facing desertification—Gutiérrez hopes to find crop-survival strategies in the Atacama. He and a group of scientists have analyzed dozens of plant species in the desert core, including those similar to legumes, to understand how the flora survive.
Protecting the desert’s flora and fauna
Most of Chile’s protected areas are in Patagonia, including the newly added 10 million acres of parkland to create Patagonia National Park in 2018.
The Atacama enjoys just a fraction of this protection—both from the government and, according to Dorador, international conservation organizations. “People have this view of the desert that there’s nothing here to protect.”
But a new Chilean government and a recent push for northern Chile protections give Atacama conservationists hope.
According to Kunze, the Council of Ministers for Sustainability has already approved three additional protected areas up north, including Iquique’s Oasis de Niebla Punta Gruesa Nature Sanctuary, designed to protect the threatened copao de Iquique cactus species in Atacama. The other two will lie in the Coquimbo region, just south of the desert, where they’ll also guard at-risk species.
“When we talk about biodiversity, people think about the Amazon or green areas. They’re, of course, important,” Dorador says. “But we also have to think about deserts. This type of life is showing another way of evolution on Earth.”
What to know
Paranal Observatory is an international astronomy facility that uses high-precision antennas to advance scientific knowledge of the universe. It is open to the public on Saturdays by reservation.