Journey to Yungay

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on Earth. Vivid colors belie the arid landscape of northern Chile where the Atacama Desert, one of the world’s driest, meets the foothills of the Andes. Here salt pans and gorges choked with mineral-streaked sediments give way to white-capped volcanoes. This scene was acquired by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite on October 28, 2001. Scientists are searching for traces of microorganisms in this extreme environment. Credit: USGS

Yungay, Chile, is hardly a tourist destination. Indeed, it’s hardly a town. More like a ghost town. In the past, Yungay was a center of activity for a nearby sodium nitrate mine. Now, the mine is closed, the town all but deserted.

Despite its remote isolation, in recent years, Yungay has become a popular international travel destination – not for tourists, but for astrobiologists. Nestled in the heart of the vast Atacama Desert, Yungay is the driest place on Earth. This utter desiccation is its draw. Not only is it one of Earth’s most extreme environments, it is also one of the most Mars-like.

This month, an international team of scientists, headed by Chris McKay of NASA Ames Research Center, will set up camp for a couple of weeks in Yungay. For the past several years, McKay and his colleagues have traveled here each year, at the start of the Chilean winter, to find out what type of ecosystem can survive in such a barren place. The short answer: none.

It doesn’t rain in Yungay. Precipitation there is measured not in inches per year, but in millimeters – perhaps ¼ of an inch – per decade. Yungay lies in a double rain shadow. To the west, moisture from the Pacific is blocked by a range of coastal mountains. To the east lies the towering cordillera of the Andes, a massive barrier to precipitation from the Amazon Basin. So perhaps it is no surprise that Yungay is lifeless. Life needs water, and Yungay doesn’t have any.

Other deserts are teeming with life. Even the driest regions of Death Valley are home to cacti, desert scrub, succulents, insects, birds, lizards and kangaroo rats. Death Valley, receives an average of two inches of rain per year – a virtual flood compared to Yungay. In the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, plants and animals cannot survive, but microbes can. Not on the surface, just below it. Inside rocks. Pick up the right rock there – a certain type of sandstone – break it open, and down about a quarter of an inch you’ll find a series of thin, colored layers: one green, one white, one black. The green layer is colonized by cyanobacteria, which derive their color from chlorophyll. Like plants, cyanobacteria use chlorophyll to perform photosynthesis, to convert sunlight into food. The white and black layers are lichens.

Sandstone is porous enough to trap tiny bits of moisture inside, enough for the organisms to live on. But not all sandstone is the right type. Its surface has to be translucent, so that some light can get through to drive the photosynthesis. The rock also acts as a natural sunscreen, blocking UV radiation that could damage the microorganisms.

The Atacama Desert is the most arid region on Earth. It may also be the most lifeless. In the interior of the desert, rain is measured in millimeters per decade and solar radiation is intense because of the high altitude. But there is life where the desert meets coastal mountains. Organisms have been discovered that survive on sunlight and fog.
Image Credit: © 2005 Carnegie Mellon University

Yungay is too dry for cyanobacteria. In parts of the Atacama closer to the coast, although there’s still no rainfall, fog drifts up from the Pacific Ocean, and provides enough moisture for life to gain a foothold. There, you can find microbial life; even succulents can survive. Thus, the transition between the Yungay region of the Atacama and the slightly moister region to the west represents, literally, the threshold of life. Researchers want to understand precisely where that boundary lies, what combination of factors defines it.

Understanding life’s threshold on Earth will help planetary scientists like McKay design strategies to search for life on Mars. By understanding which conditions enable life and which don’t, by analyzing the mechanisms life uses to survive under the harshest of conditions, and by being able to detect the difference between a lifeless environment and one that has the merest trace of life, scientists will gain knowledge that will help them search for evidence of life on another world.

Astrobiology Magazine will accompany McKay’s team as they conduct this year’s field research in Yungay. Between June 22 and June 27, this reporter will post a log of daily field notes, chronicling the work of McKay and his colleagues. So bookmark and join us as we go exploring, in search of the limits of life.




Related Web Pages

Life is Left Handed
Microbes, Microbes Everywhere
The Martian Mortal Coil
Searching for Scarce Life
Life in Atacama
Dry Limit of Life
Trooper Zoë
Follow the Sun
The Edge of Life
Life in the Atacama, 2003