World’s driest desert hit by snow, rain

Image: Children play during an unusual snowfall in the Atacama desert, near Copiapo, Chile, Sunday, Sunday.

Alex Fuentes

Children play during an unusual snowfall in the Atacama desert, near Copiapo, Chile, Sunday.


8/2/2011 4:52:56 AM ET

This has been the wettest winter in decades for Chile’s arid northern desert, where fractions of an inch of rain have done major damage in some areas and set the stage for spectacular floral displays in the weeks to come.

July came and went with major storms that together dumped more than five times the annual average of rain and snow on parts of the world’s driest desert.

The past weekend’s precipitation blocked highways, forced the cancellation of a top Chilean football match and damaged the homes of 1,800 people, said Vicente Nunez, chief of the Interior Ministry’s national emergency office.

A similarly wet stretch in early July dumped four years’ worth of rain in one day on coastal Antofogasta.

That was just a quarter of an inch but it was still enough to cause collapsed or leaking roofs in homes and businesses that usually have no reason to protect themselves against even minimal precipitation.

Three feet of snow

That storm also brought as much as three feet of snow to mountains that normally receive zero precipitation during the southern winter.

Soldiers helped rescue 400 people including busloads of foreign visitors who were trapped in snow drifts and 50 mph winds, said Ernesto Figueroa, chief of Chile’s emergency agency in the northern Tarapaca region.

Some copper mines in the region, including the massive Collahuasi operation, temporarily halted production because of snowfall.

Further south in Copiapo, dry riverbeds became torrents, trapping people who tried to drive across. The government helped out by delivering plastic sheeting to shantytown residents.

Video: Snowmageddon hits southern Chile (on this page)

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