How Did 'White Gold' End Up in Chile's Desert?

Scientists think nitrates came from ancient groundwater, not evaporation from the sea

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Feb 9, 2014 6:01 AM CST

(Newser) – Chile's Atacama Desert—the world's highest and driest—is packed with what's been called "white gold": nitrate deposits that have been historically important. The nitrates found there were key to World War I bombs and battling iodine deficiency, LiveScience reports. But until now, just how the material got there has been something of a mystery. "From a geological perspective," Chilean researcher Martin Reich tells the website, the deposits "shouldn't be there."

Previously, the best guess was that the Atacama nitrates arrived through evaporation, carried by sea spray or rain when the region was wetter. But Reich and his team have a different explanation, based on a chemical analysis of the nitrates. They argue that some 20 million years ago, precipitation in the Andes Mountains leached the minerals from rocks into the soil. Groundwater then drove them into what's now the desert. Eventually, the region became drier and the mountains grew taller. That should have shifted the groundwater westward—but the mountains of the Chilean Coast Ranges blocked such movement; instead, the groundwater rose and evaporated. What remained was the "white gold," LiveScience explains.

Tour buses wait for visitors to return from watching the sunset over the desolate Valle de la Luna in Chile's Atacama Desert.
Tour buses wait for visitors to return from watching the sunset over the desolate Valle de la Luna in Chile's Atacama Desert.   (AP Photo/Karen Schwartz)
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