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The Atacama Desert in Chile, one of the world’s oldest deserts, is also one of the driest places on Earth. While parts of Antarctica have never recorded any precipitation, the Atacama’s rainfall statistics are still quite impressive. Until the early 1970s, some parts of the desert hadn’t seen rainfall for around four hundred years. It’s rare to see heavy rainfall even now (though occasionally flash flooding can occur), and when it does, it’s a spectacular sight. The desert blooms, transforming into a beautiful carpet of wildflowers. But even when there isn’t, the vivid colors of its mineral-rich rock and intense hues of its lagoons and salt flats make this a truly breathtaking place. Here are five things you never knew about the Atacama Desert.
NASA Uses the Desert to Mimic Mars
When NASA decided to look for life on Mars, it started right here on Earth. In fact, one of the Atacama’s most famous valleys – Valle de Marte – translates to Mars Valley due to its resemblance to the red planet. The rough rocky surface, characterized by bumpy nodules of rock salt or halite, is as close as you’ll get without setting off for space. The Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies project, or ARADS for short, has conducted a series of experiments in the region, from growing trees to testing vehicles. (While it’s one of the driest places on Earth, Mars is estimated to have a staggering thousand times less water than even the driest parts of the Atacama.)
Unsurprisingly, the Atacama Desert’s otherworldly landscape has made it the choice of several filmmakers, too, including the British series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets and the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace (though not as Mars).
It’s One of the Best Places in the World for Stargazing
This remote, high-altitude locale — reaching elevations of 13,000 feet — also happens to be one of the best on the planet to observe the night sky. On average, the Atacama Desert experiences 330 cloud-free nights every year, a fact not overlooked by the world’s top astronomers. If you’re used to stargazing from a town or city, the sight of so many stars glittering against a pitch black sky is sure to be jaw-dropping. Stargazing tours depart from the main tourist town of San Pedro de Atacama to an array of nearby telescopes, where an astronomer guide will help you spot constellations, nebulae and even the rings around Saturn.
Scientists flock here too. On the Chajnantor Plateau, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA for short, boasts a collection of 66 radio antennas — making it the largest radio telescope in the world. Collectively, those antennas are capable of identifying an object the size of a golf ball from a distance of nine miles.
The European Southern Observatory operates another two sites in Chile’s Atacama Desert, at La Silla and Paranal. They’re also building what’s known as the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which should be able to collect 100 million times more light than the human eye, enabling it to search for planets circling stars and help boost understanding of black holes and galaxies.
It’s One of the Driest Places on Earth — But the Fauna Is Surprisingly Diverse
Visitors to the Atacama Desert are often taken aback at just how much wildlife can exist in what appears to be such an inhospitable place. But there are places where rainfall is sufficient to support vegetation and animals, including wild Andean foxes which live off lizards and small rodents. The viscacha, a type of chinchilla, can also be seen. Herders tend flocks of llamas, bringing them down to mountain lakes to graze. Their wild cousins, vicuñas and guanacos, are harder to locate, but migrate towards water sources.
Birdlife is also abundant. Some of those dazzling high altitude lakes and salt flats boast colorful flocks of flamingos. Where the desert meets the coast, Humboldt penguins nest in cliffs overlooking the ocean. Hummingbirds visit seasonally, drawn by nectar, seeds and insects. When there’s sufficient water to bring out the blooms on the region’s flowers, you might even spot birds of prey such as burrowing owls.
Water Is Harvested from Fog to Grow Crops — And Even Brew Beer
Around a million people live in the Atacama Desert, many of them making a living from copper or lithium mining or from tourism. But while the annual rainfall is less than one millimeter per year, some residents manage to grow crops via an ingenious method of fog harvesting called “camanchaca.” Near the coast, parts of the Atacama Desert are susceptible to thick fog, which rolls in off the Pacific Ocean. In the 1950s, a scientist called Carlos Espinosa Arancibia came up with the idea of a fog catcher — basically, a net with holes to capture the water vapor, which would collect and drip down the netting into a channel underneath. From there, the moisture could be piped to where it was needed and used to irrigate crops. Since then, research has continued and at the Atrapaniebla (Fog Catcher) Brewery in Peña Blanca, this precious water has even been used to make beer. The owners claim it is the only beer in the world to be produced in this way.
It’s Home to Mummies That Are Older than Egypt
If you thought the mummies in Egypt’s ancient pyramids were the oldest on the planet, think again. The oldest Chinchorro mummy, the Acha man, dates back to approximately 7020 B.C., several thousand years before the first of the Egyptian mummies.
Around a third of these mummies, like Acha man, were mummified naturally, with the dry desert climate helping to preserve the bodies. Later, embalmers replaced internal organs with animal hair and created a clay mask in place of what would have been skin and flesh. Unusually, the Chinchorro people didn’t reserve mummification for royalty, nor did they favor one sex over the other. Archaeologists have recovered 282 Chinchorro mummies from the Atacama since the first discovery just over a century ago.
How much joy did the curse cost me? By his curse on creation, didn’t God intentionally put a limiter on the joy we can have in him in this life? Wow — a solid question from a podcast listener named Michael. “Hello, Pastor John! Can you explain what the futility/fall/curse costs us today regarding our felt experience of joy? I believe this was the deliberate act of God. So, even for obedient Christians, how does the intention of God to subject all of us, and all of creation, under futility/fall/curse cost us in God-glorifying joy? It seems to me that God intentionally put a limiter on our joy experience in this world, and thus he likewise put a limit on how much we can glorify him too. Am I wrong here?”
No, you are not wrong. When Adam and Eve sinned, when they preferred their own wisdom to God’s wisdom, and preferred their own perception of what was good and pleasant to God’s perception, they died. God had said in Genesis 2:17, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Folly and Ruin
When they ate, two things happened. The sentence of physical death and separation from God was — bang — confirmed. The gavel came down in the courtroom of heaven: Guilty — to be hanged by the neck until dead. Sentence delivered, execution assured, time fixed in the mind of God. It’s done. You’re dead.
The second thing that happened was in the spiritual dimension of their souls. Oh my goodness, you can see it: Every relationship was ruined, corrupted. They were ashamed of themselves. They were blaming each other. They were blaming God. They were afraid of God. Everything came apart when sin entered the world.
“Grace shines all the more brightly because of the deadness and blindness from which God saves us.”
In short, their preference for self over God — and there’s the essence of sin; that’s what entered the world — pervaded and ruined every relationship. Self-exaltation would be another name for it. Self-exaltation ruined everything. It ruined the relationship with self even. It made the self insecure because the human self could never be God, and that’s what the self had just chosen to be. It’ll never work. Fallen human beings are built into failures because they can never be the God they want to be.
Self-exaltation ruined the relationship with the spouse because now another person is just an encroachment upon my self-rule. “Please, get out of my life. You’re in the way. I want my self-freedom to do what I want to do.” And now the spouse, she or he can never conform to your godlike demand for your own self. Others now have to be used to buttress the self because it’s so hopelessly out of sync with its godlike expectation. Sin and self-preference and self-exaltation have ruined relationships with other people.
Finally, self-exaltation ruined the relationship with God because God is the only one in reality that deserves to be exalted, and so our self-exaltation means we’re in high treason against God and rebellion against him and alienated from him. Oh, what a misery was brought into the world because of self-exaltation and preference of self over God. All of that is called death. It is God’s judgment, not just a kind of natural development. It was promised in Genesis 2:17; it was executed by God. God warned of death, and now he delivers: he hands them over actively into the folly and ruin that they have chosen.
Dead to Delight in God
Now, Michael is right that when sin entered the world, God subjected the world to a spiritual death, as well as a physical corruption, and God put sinful man in a position where he could not glorify God from the heart, precisely because he could not see and savor the all-satisfying beauty of God with the heart. His heart was blind to the beauty of God, and therefore he was not able to delight in God; therefore, his joy was shriveled, and his capacities to glorify God by enjoying God were dead.
Probably the best description of this fallen condition of the human heart — unable to see and savor the beauty of God, and therefore unable to glorify God from the heart — is Ephesians 2:1–3.
You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
“Preference for self over God pervaded and ruined every relationship.”
Goodnight, that’s awful. That’s just a horrible description of human nature. Now, that’s true of us — until God breaks in at verse 4 and makes us alive. We’re called dead. Mankind is dead, but ironically, it’s a very active deadness: we’re sinning; we’re trespassing; we’re walking according to the spirit of the age; we’re in lockstep with the devil; we’re by nature sons of disobedience; we’re children of wrath. That’s a really active dead man.
We have plenty of desires as dead people — desires of the body, it says. We’re following the desires of the body. We’re following the desires of the mind. But they were all dead desires; that is, they were leading to ruin. And we’re totally insensitive, dull, impervious, dead to the most thrilling desires in the world — namely, desires for God. That’s what deadness means ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin: dead to delight in God. We can’t delight in him because we’re blind to his beauty, and we can’t glorify him because we can’t delight in him.
Yes, Michael, yes, the fall was God’s handing us over to a blindness and a deadness that kept us and keeps us from seeing the all-satisfying reality of God and, therefore, keeps us from glorifying God from the heart. But. There’s a great old sermon by Martyn Lloyd-Jones called “But God . . .,” and it’s based on Ephesians 2:4–7:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places [and here’s the purpose], so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
We see here the ultimate purpose of all these years, centuries of shutting down our joy and shutting down our ability to glorify God from the heart. Why? “So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace” (Ephesians 2:7). That grace shines all the more brightly because of the deadness and blindness from which God saves us.
If we stand back from the fall of Adam and Eve and the fall of the whole human race into sin and spiritual deadness, and we ask, “What was the purpose of all that? Why did God let that happen?” we can answer with the words of Genesis 50:20, paraphrasing, “You, Satan, meant it for evil, you snake. You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” And the good was this: “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:6 NET). Paul says he consigned all things to deadness and disobedience in order that in the coming ages he might make known or show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. And from that showing would flow joy and praise that never could have appeared without the fall.