The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

14 years worth of rain in one day triggers deadly flooding in driest place on Earth

At least nine people are dead after 14 years worth of rain caused severe flooding in what is known for being the driest location in the world.

The Atacama Desert is a very, very dry place. Arica, Chile, in the northern Atacama holds the record for the longest dry streak, having gone 173 months without a drop of rain in the early 20th century. In another Atacama neighbor to the south of Arica, the average annual rainfall in the city of Antofagasta is 0.07 inches.

But on Tuesday, heavy thunderstorms delivered 0.96 inches of rain in one day to parts of the Atacama Desert, which led the Copiapo River to swell far beyond its banks — though it typically doesn’t have any water in it at all.

It seems likely that the rainfall was enhanced by the current El Nino event, which increases water temperature off the coast of Chile. “The heavy rains were from a cold front that hit the Andes Mountains,” writes Jeff Masters at Weather Underground. “Unusually warm ocean temperatures approximately [1.8 degrees] above average off of the coast meant that high amounts of water vapor were available to fuel the storm and generate exceptionally heavy rains.”

At least nine people have died in the floods, and Chile declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, the AP reports:

The flooding is “the worst rain disaster to fall on the north in 80 years,” Deputy Interior Minister Mahmud Aleuy said Thursday.
TV images showed brown, muddy waters flooding the streets and reaching a hospital in Copiapo city. Some people living along the river had to be rescued by helicopter because roads were blocked by water and mud. TV footage showed several families waiting on the roofs of their homes, including a man who had punched a hole through his roof to save his toddler.
Residents of northern Chile are taking on the grim task of cleaning up their damaged homes after some of the worst flooding in the region in nearly eight decades. (Video: Reuters)