Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

, Volume 111, Issue 8, pp 1273–1291 | Cite as

Geology and geochemistry of the Atacama Desert

  • J. Tapia
  • R. González
  • B. Townley
  • V. Oliveros
  • F. Álvarez
  • G. Aguilar
  • A. Menzies
  • M. Calderón
Original Paper


The Atacama Desert, the driest of its kind on Earth, hosts a number of unique geological and geochemical features that make it unlike any other environment on the planet. Considering its location on the western border of South America, between 17 and 28 °S, its climate has been characterized as arid to hyperarid for at least the past 10 million years. Notably dry climatic conditions of the Atacama Desert have been related to uplift of the Andes and are believed to have played an important role in the development of the most distinctive features of this desert, including: (i) nitrates and iodine deposits in the Central Depression, (ii) secondary enrichment in porphyry copper deposits in the Precordillera, (iii) Li enrichment in salt flats of the Altiplano, and (iv) life in extreme habitats. The geology and physiography of the Atacama Desert have been largely shaped by the convergent margin present since the Mesozoic era. The geochemistry of surface materials is related to rock geochemistry (Co, Cr, Fe, Mn, V, and Zn), salt flats, and evaporite compositions in endorheic basins (As, B, and Li), in addition to anthropogenic activities (Cu, Mo, and Pb). The composition of surface water is highly variable, nonetheless in general it presents a circumneutral pH with higher conductivity and total dissolved solids in brines. Major water constituents, with the exception of HCO3, are generally related to the increase of salinity, and despite the fact that trace elements are not well-documented, surface waters of the Atacama Desert are enriched in As, B, and Li when compared to the average respective concentrations in rivers worldwide.


Atacama Desert Geology Geochemistry Mineral deposits 



We sincerely thank Alan Bull for the invitation to participate in this special issue in addition to the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and suggestions. We thank Pablo Zúñiga for the compilation of water data and Brandon Schneider for English improvement. This review was partially funded by the grant entitled Programa de Inserción en la Academia (PAI) 79150070.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra, Facultad de CienciasUniversidad Austral de ChileValdiviaChile
  2. 2.Departamento de Ciencias Geológicas, Facultad de Ingeniería y Ciencias GeológicasUniversidad Católica del NorteAntofagastaChile
  3. 3.Advanced Mining Technology Center, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y MatemáticasUniversidad de ChileSantiagoChile
  4. 4.Departamento de Geología, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y MatemáticasUniversidad de ChileSantiagoChile
  5. 5.Departamento de Ciencias de la TierraUniversidad de ConcepciónConcepciónChile
  6. 6.Carrera de Geología, Facultad de IngenieríaUniversidad Andres BelloSantiagoChile

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