Chile’s Atacama Desert is a place of surreal contradictions: Delicate flowers, blooming only once or twice a decade, suddenly cover a bone-dry landscape. Huge dunes of discarded clothing appear alongside undulating sand.
The desert is some 1,600 kilometres long, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes mountains. In a normal year, the Atacama gets less than 5 millimetres of rain; some parts of the desert see no rain for decades. This makes it Earth’s driest desert that’s not located in the polar regions. Conditions are so extreme that Atacama is used as a stand-in for Mars by NASA and the European Space Agency.
A Flowering Desert
Despite the record-breaking dryness in the Atacama, every several years during the spring season in the Southern Hemisphere, parts of the desert are covered in colour as flowers burst seemingly from nowhere. The desert experiences a phenomenon known as “desierto florido” — flowering desert — around once every five to seven years between September and November.
During this time, around 100 kilometres of the desert is covered by more than 200 species of flowers. These flowers have evolved to be able to lie dormant in the soil for years as seeds, waiting for a particularly rainy year to flourish.
More Rain Is Happening
The most recent desierto florido event occurred in October, when these photos were taken. The flowers bring out all kinds of wildlife, from bugs to birds, while tourists also flock to the region to see the gorgeous carpet of colour.
In recent years, the Atacama has experienced more bursts of sudden rainfall and increasing humidity. This has caused some additional desierto florido events, as well as other unintended side effects, including the rotting of some of the world’s oldest mummies and the triggering of a mass die-off of bacterial ecosystems. Attributing specific rainfall events to climate change is tricky, but climate change is expected to make storms across the world more intense.
Drought Could Also Be an Issue
In contrast, scientists also caution that a longer-term drying trend associated with climate change could also endanger the flowers. Chile is in the middle of a 13-year drought and just instituted historic water rations. Central Chile has gotten 30% less rainfall than usual over the past decade, while in Coquimbo, one of the cities near where the flowering desert phenomenon takes place, rainfall in 2019 was 90% below the previous record low.
“If the temperature continues rising and the precipitation continues declining, many seeds will not be able to establish themselves and grow,” Francisco Squeo, a biologist at the University of Chile, told Agencia EFE. “We hope that humanity will soon take steps to reduce climate change, but the question is whether the flowers can wait.”
To the North, Piles of Trash
More than 1,000 kilometres to the south, the desert showcases a different side of the climate crisis: the detritus of our fast fashion addiction. Outside the port town of Iquique, the Atacama has become a dumping ground for used clothing, with piles of discarded garments forming dunes in the desert.
Thousands of Tons Dumped Each Year
More than 65,000 tons of used clothing, shipped from Asia, Europe, and the U.S., arrive each year in Iquique, where they are meant to be resold around Latin America. The port is what’s called the Inquique “free zone,” one of several areas in Chile meant to encourage international trade, where there are no tariffs, taxes, or other customs-related fees.
As a result, each year about 35,000 tons of clothing, which can’t be resold, stay in the “free zone,” since no one wants to pay the tariffs required to move them back out of the area. Landfills refuse to take the synthetic fibres that make up the bulk of the clothing, EcoFibra founder Franklin Zepeda told AFP, so the desert has become the dumping ground.
Fast Fashion Is a Disaster
The world’s addiction to fast fashion is wreaking havoc on the planet. Cheap garments made of oil and gas products like nylon, polyester, and spandex have become ubiquitous in our closets, while more traditional garments also have their issues (it takes nearly a thousand gallons, or more than 3,780 litres, to make one pair of jeans). And there’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon. Clothing production has doubled since 2000, and the average person now buys 60% more clothing than they did 20 years ago, while the number of times the average piece of clothing is worn before being thrown out is a third less than it was in 2002. That means more trash like what we’re seeing in the desert: Every second around the world, the equivalent of a truckload of clothes is incinerated or dumped in a landfill.