The Atacama Desert in Chile is a place of surreal contradictions: delicate flowers, which bloom only once or twice a decade, suddenly cover an arid landscape. Huge dunes of discarded clothes appear alongside the rippling sand.
The desert is approximately 990 miles (1,600 kilometers) long, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. In a normal year, the Atacama receives less than 5 millimeters of rain; parts of the desert see no rain for decades. This makes it the driest desert on Earth that is not found in the polar regions. The conditions are so extreme that Atacama is used as a Mars surrogate by NASA and the European Space Agency.
A flowery desert
Despite the record-breaking drought in the Atacama, every year during the spring season in the Southern Hemisphere, parts of the desert are covered in color as flowers burst seemingly out of nowhere. The desert experiences a phenomenon known as “desierto florido” – flowering desert – about once every five to seven years between September and November.
Meanwhile, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) of the desert is covered in more than 200 species of flowers. These flowers have evolved to be able to lie dormant in the ground for years as seeds, waiting for a particularly rainy year to bloom.
It’s raining more
Florida’s most recent desert event was in October, when these photos were taken. The flowers bring out all sorts of wildlife, from insects to birds, while tourists also flock to the area to see the beautiful carpet of color.
In recent years, the Atacama has experienced more sudden rainfall and increased humidity. This caused additional events in the Florida desert, as well as other unforeseen side effects, including the rotting of some of the world’s oldest mummies and triggering mass mortality of bacterial ecosystems. Attributing specific rain events to climate change is tricky, but climate change is expected to make storms more intense across the world.
Drought could also be an issue
In contrast, the scientists also warn that a longer-term drying trend associated with climate change could also put the flowers at risk. Chile is in the midst of a 13-year drought and has just instituted historic water rations. Central Chile has received 30% less rainfall than usual over the past decade, while in Coquimbo, one of the towns near where the Flowering Desert phenomenon occurs, rainfall in 2019 were 90% lower than the previous record.
“If the temperature continues to rise and the rainfall continues to drop, 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 action to reduce climate change, but the question is whether the flowers can wait.”
To the north, heaps of rubbish
More than 1,000 kilometers to the south, the desert presents another facet of the climate crisis: the detritus of our addiction to fast fashion. Outside the port city of Iquique, the Atacama has become a dumping ground for used clothes, with piles of discarded clothes forming dunes in the desert.
Thousands of tonnes dumped each year
More than 65,000 tons of used clothing, shipped from Asia, Europe and the United States, arrive in Iquique each year, where they are destined to be resold throughout Latin America. The port is what is known as the “free zone” of Inquique, one of many areas in Chile designed to encourage international trade, where there are no customs duties, taxes or other customs charges.
As a result, each year around 35,000 tonnes of clothing, which cannot be resold, remains in the “free zone”, because no one wants to pay the customs duties necessary to get them out of the zone. Landfills refuse to take the synthetic fibers that make up the bulk of clothing, EcoFibra founder Franklin Zepeda told AFP. The desert has therefore become the dumping ground.
Fast fashion is a disaster
The world’s addiction to fast fashion is wreaking havoc on the planet. Inexpensive clothes made from oil and gas products like nylon, polyester and spandex have become ubiquitous in our closets, while more traditional clothes have their issues too (it takes nearly a thousand gallons, or more than 3,780 liters , to make a pair of jeans ). And there are no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Clothing production has doubled since 2000, and the average person now buys 60% more clothes than 20 years ago, while the number of times the average item of clothing is worn before being thrown away is a third lower than it was in 2002. That means more waste like what we see in the desert: every second around the world, a truckload’s worth of clothes is incinerated or dumped in a landfill.