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Astrobiology. 2003 Summer;3(2):393-406.

Temperature and moisture conditions for life in the extreme arid region of the Atacama desert: four years of observations including the El Niño of 1997-1998.

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Space Science Division, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California 94035, USA.


The Atacama along the Pacific Coast of Chile and Peru is one of the driest and possibly oldest deserts in the world. It represents an extreme habitat for life on Earth and is an analog for life in dry conditions on Mars. We report on four years (September 1994-October 1998) of climate and moisture data from the extreme arid region of the Atacama. Our data are focused on understanding moisture sources and their role in creating suitable environments for photosynthetic microorganisms in the desert surface. The average air temperature was 16.5 degrees C and 16.6 degrees C in 1995 and 1996, respectively. The maximum air temperature recorded was 37.9 degrees C, and the minimum was -5.7 degrees C. Annual average sunlight was 336 and 335 W m(-2) in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Winds averaged a few meters per second, with strong föhn winds coming from the west exceeding 12 m s(-1). During our 4 years of observation there was only one significant rain event of 2.3 mm, which occurred near midnight local time. We suggest that this event was a rainout of a heavy fog. It is of interest that the strong El Niño of 1997-1998 brought heavy rainfall to the deserts of Peru, but did not bring significant rain to the central Atacama in Chile. Dew occurred at our station frequently following high nighttime relative humidity, but is not a significant source of moisture in the soil or under stones. Groundwater also does not contribute to surface moisture. Only the one rain event of 2.3 mm resulted in liquid water in the soil and beneath stones for a total of only 65-85 h over 4 years. The paucity of liquid water under stones is consistent with the apparent absence of hypolithic (under-stone) cyanobacteria, the only known primary producers in such extreme deserts.

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