First Rain in 500 Years Devastates Microbial life in the Atacama Desert

No rainfall has been detected in the Atacama Desert for at least five hundred years.

The first rains in at least five centuries that have been recorded in the hyper-arid Atacama Desert, Chile, have devastated its valuable microbial life.

The Atacama Desert, located in northern Chile, encompasses about 105,000 square kilometers.

Located in northern Chile, the Atacama Desert is one of the driest and oldest deserts on Earth. It hides a hyper-arid core in which no rain has been recorded during the past 500 years.

However, in the last three years, things have changed drastically.

For the first time in centuries, rain has been recorded at the Atacama, and contrary to popular belief, it is not great news, as the rain has caused a great devastation among local life.

“We found that only a handful of bacteria, remarkably a newly identified species of Halomonas, remain metabolically active and are still able to reproduce in the lagoons, while no archaea or eukaryotes were identified.”

A small, temporary lagoon in the Atacama Desert. Image Credit: Carlos González-Silva
A small, temporary lagoon in the Atacama Desert. Image Credit: Carlos González-Silva

According to a paper titled “Unprecedented rains decimate surface microbial communities in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert,” and published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, these recent rains are attributed to global climate change, mostly over the Pacific Ocean.

“Our group has discovered that, contrary to what could be expected intuitively, the never-before-seen rainfall has not triggered a flowering of life in Atacama, but instead, the rains have caused enormous devastation in the microbial species that inhabited the region before the heavy precipitations,” explains Dr. Alberto G. Fairén.

“Our work shows that high rainfall has caused the massive extinction of most indigenous microbial species. The extinction range reaches 85 percent, as a result of the osmotic stress that has caused the sudden abundance of water: The autochthonous microorganisms, which were perfectly adapted to thrive under conditions of extreme dryness and had strategies optimized for the extraction of the scarce humidity of their environment, have been unable to adapt to the new conditions of sudden flooding and have died from excess water,” adds Fairén.


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