The driest place on earth

A Berkeley scientist scales a deep riverbank in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile to sample volcanic ash that will be chemically analyzed to determine the age of the ancient river deposit it is part of. Photo by Ronald Amundson

A Berkeley scientist scales a deep riverbank in the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile to sample volcanic ash that will be chemically analyzed to determine the age of the ancient river deposit it is part of. Photo by Ronald Amundson

The Atacama Desert of northern Chile is the driest place on Earth, completely devoid of plants, animals, and many microbes. ESPM scientist Ronald Amundson and his colleagues across the campus are using field research and chemical techniques to determine how old the desert is, how the landscape has evolved during millions of years of near-lifelessness, and how microbial life has adapted to these harsh conditions.

ESPM researchers have also determined that the soils of the Atacama Desert have many similarities to those of Mars based on comparisons to data obtained by the recent Mars rovers.
By understanding the relations between Chilean soil chemistry and the scant rain water it receives,  we have learned that Mars soils appear to have received rain or snow water relatively late in Martian history, which suggests, along with other independent observations, that Mars has a complex and rich climate record.

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