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 User
Posted Feb 9, 2014 6:01 AM CST
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)

(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.

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Showing 3 of 3 comments
Feb 10, 2014 12:13 AM CST
In Europe et al Nitrate is mined as Saltpeter or Potassium Nitrate. Chile Saltpeter is Sodium Nitrate so probably not an Ocean deposit. Very little Nitrate in surface or groundwater, Nitrate kills your aquarium fish. By "white gold" I had assumed this article was about Lithium salts found on the salt flats; price skyrocketing due to Electric car battery needs. Lithium is also rare geologically and not found in sea salt flats. Another large recent Lithium find was Afghanistan.
Feb 9, 2014 5:54 PM CST
Not the case here.... During WWI these deposits were valuable as a feedstock for armaments.... Today nitrates are produced commericailly starting with atmospheric nitrogen... (see Haber process)... I would go as far to speculate that natural deposites are not economically? viable...
Feb 9, 2014 6:49 AM CST
Anything with the name "Gold" attached to it and you can bet man will rape the land to get it and Chile's Atacama Desert will never look the same.