In 2011, Chile’s Atacama Desert in Chile got a rare snowfall. In fact, it received 32 inches of snow as the result of a very rare cold front from Antarctica. This wasn’t the only instance of snow in the desert, but it’s interesting and bizarre since the Atacama Desert is one of the driest places on Earth.
What caused snow in the desert?
According to the Washington Post (cited below), “The uniqueness of this event is that the Atacama Desert is a 600-mile-long plateau known to be one of, if not the driest and most sterile deserts on Earth. Because moisture is blocked from the east by the Andes mountains and from the west by the Chilean Coast Range, the average rainfall is just 0.04 per year and skies are almost always cloud-free.”
The 2011 snowfall occurred when an Antarctic cold front (the strongest in 30 years) broke through the region’s rain and snow shadow. It is wildly cold there (with an elevation of 10,000 feet), but it just doesn’t typically get moisture).
Other parts of Chile got a crippling 8 feet of snow, cutting off access to the area and stranding residents without supplies. The Washington Post quoted one regional governor as saying, “In four days we have had four months’ worth of snowfall.”
It’s so dry in this desert that Atacama’s weather stations had never even recorded rain, and “research suggests that some identifiable river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.”
What’s special about the Atacama Desert?
If you’ve heard of the Atacama desert, it might be related to any interest you have in NASA and space exploration. The desert is used to simulate Mars, and NASA uses it to test Mars mission instruments.
It’s also been a movie set because it simply doesn’t look like Earth. For example, it was used in Space Odyssey. — WTF fun facts