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Antonie van Leeuwenhoek


Geology and geochemistry of the Atacama Desert

J. Tapia . R. González . B. Townley . V. Oliveros . F. Álvarez .
G. Aguilar . A. Menzies . M. Calderón

Received: 13 December 2017 / Accepted: 24 January 2018

! Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Abstract The Atacama Desert, the driest of its kind present since the Mesozoic era. The geochemistry of
on Earth, hosts a number of unique geological and surface materials is related to rock geochemistry (Co,
geochemical features that make it unlike any other Cr, Fe, Mn, V, and Zn), salt flats, and evaporite
environment on the planet. Considering its location on compositions in endorheic basins (As, B, and Li), in
the western border of South America, between 17 and addition to anthropogenic activities (Cu, Mo, and Pb).
28 "S, its climate has been characterized as arid to The composition of surface water is highly variable,
hyperarid for at least the past 10 million years. Notably nonetheless in general it presents a circumneutral pH
dry climatic conditions of the Atacama Desert have with higher conductivity and total dissolved solids in
been related to uplift of the Andes and are believed to brines. Major water constituents, with the exception of
have played an important role in the development of HCO3-, are generally related to the increase of salinity,
the most distinctive features of this desert, including: and despite the fact that trace elements are not well-
(i) nitrates and iodine deposits in the Central Depres- documented, surface waters of the Atacama Desert are
sion, (ii) secondary enrichment in porphyry copper enriched in As, B, and Li when compared to the
deposits in the Precordillera, (iii) Li enrichment in salt average respective concentrations in rivers worldwide.
flats of the Altiplano, and (iv) life in extreme habitats.
The geology and physiography of the Atacama Desert Keywords Atacama Desert ! Geology !
have been largely shaped by the convergent margin Geochemistry ! Mineral deposits

J. Tapia (&) B. Townley

Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra, Facultad de Ciencias, Departamento de Geologı́a, Facultad de Ciencias Fı́sicas y
Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Chile Matemáticas, Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile
e-mail:; V. Oliveros ! F. Álvarez
Departamento de Ciencias de la Tierra, Universidad de
R. González ! A. Menzies Concepción, Concepción, Chile
Departamento de Ciencias Geológicas, Facultad de
Ingenierı́a y Ciencias Geológicas, Universidad Católica M. Calderón
del Norte, Antofagasta, Chile Carrera de Geologı́a, Facultad de Ingenierı́a, Universidad
Andres Bello, Sazie 2119, Santiago, Chile
B. Townley ! G. Aguilar
Advanced Mining Technology Center, Facultad de
Ciencias Fı́sicas y Matemáticas, Universidad de Chile,
Santiago, Chile

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Introduction geological similitudes between the Atacama Desert

and Mars which favor the presence of life (De Waele
The Atacama Desert is located along the western et al. 2017; Navarro-González et al. 2003; Vı́tek et al.
border of South America, spanning the central Andes 2012; Wierzchos et al. 2011). In addition, during this
to Pacific Ocean in northern Chile (Rech et al. 2006; century, microbiological research in the Atacama
Fig. 1a). It is known for its arid to hyperarid climate Desert has increased (Bull et al. 2016).
(Clarke 2006; Dunai et al. 2005) and water scarcity Despite the considerable amount of research
(CR2 2017). In fact, some areas of the Atacama Desert devoted to general geology and climate, studies
have not been eroded since 23 Ma (million years ago) related to the geochemistry of the Atacama Desert
(Dunai et al. 2005; Fig. 1b). Its distinctive climate is are fairly new and most investigations have been
the result of the confluence of a subtropical high- undertaken to better understand the formation of Cu–
pressure zone, the cold Humboldt current on the coast, Mo porphyries (Alpers and Brimhall 1989; Leybourne
offshore winds (Clarke 2006), as well as the Andean and Cameron 2006, 2008), the discovery of cover
rain-shadow effect and latitudinal position of the deposits through regolith geochemistry in the Inca de
region (Houston and Hartley 2003). Precipitation is Oro district (López 2014), and the characterization of
very scarce; in the case of the cities Arica and Iquique, iodine (Álvarez et al. 2015, 2016), nitrates (Pérez-
they have reported annual rainfalls of 0.5 and 0.6 mm Fodich et al. 2014), and lithium (Ide and Kunasz 1990;
per year, respectively, while Antofagasta, Calama and Risacher et al. 1999) deposits.
Copiapó have reported rainfall ranging from 1.7 to Sediment geochemistry has been studied by the
12 mm per year (Clarke 2006; Figs. 1b,c). National Survey of Mining and Geology (SERNA-
The Atacama Desert presents unique conditions GEOMIN). In 2011, a national plan was undertaken by
such as notably low rates of erosion (Jungers et al. that institution to quantify the geochemistry of sedi-
2013; Placzek et al. 2010), accumulation of rare nitrate ments with the intent of systematically providing data
and iodate salts and more common halite, gypsum, and to the public (SERNAGEOMIN 2012a, b, c). In
anhydrite salts (Álvarez et al. 2016; Ericksen 1981; addition, the composition of sediments has been
Pérez-Fodich et al. 2014), as well as the occurrence of studied in areas affected by mining activities such as
important epigenetic metallic mineral deposits (Alpers distinct reaches of El Loa River (Romero et al. 2003),
and Brimhall 1989; Palacios et al. 2011; Reich et al. the mouth of the El Salado River (Chañaral-Caleta
2008). Palito in Fig. 1; Ramı́rez et al. 2005), and the El Salado
Geologic and paleoclimatic characteristics of the River and Pedernales salt flat of the northern Atacama
Atacama Desert have been extensively researched; Region (Tapia et al. 2018). Soils of the Atacama
Ignacio Domeyko (Domeyko 1903) and Rodulfo Desert have been poorly documented and some
Philippi (Philippi 1860) were the first scientists to information is available at specific locations such as
characterize this region. The most important prior for agricultural soils in the regions of Tarapacá and
research related to the geology and climate in this Antofagasta (De Gregori et al. 2003), and the
desert were undertaken to evaluate: (i) the relationship contaminated sites of Quillagua, Antofagasta
between the formation of the desert and Andes (CENMA 2014), and Arica (Agriquem 2009; Fig. 1b).
Mountain uplift (Lamb and Davis 2003; Rech et al. Limited information exists in relation to saline
2006); (ii) the beginning of the arid to hyperarid precipitates, however they have been documented in
conditions (Alpers and Brimhall 1989; Clarke 2006; the Pedernales salt flat (Tapia et al. 2018). In regard to
Dunai et al. 2005; Hartley et al. 2005; Rech et al. mine waste present in the Atacama Desert, Serna-
2006); (iii) supergene expression of deep-lying pri- geomin made an inventory and characterized the
mary mineralization (Leybourne and Cameron geochemistry of tailing impoundments (SERNAGEO-
2006, 2008; Reich et al. 2008; Townley et al. 2007), MIN 2017).
diversity of primary mineral deposit types, and the To evaluate surface water chemistry of the Atacama
development of exploration methods based on knowl- Desert, the national Water General Direction (DGA)
edge of regolith and landscape evolution processes has sampled surface water in Chilean basins, and
(e.g., Castillo et al. 2015; Palacios et al. 2005, 2011; available information is provided on the government
Townley et al. 2007, 2013, 2015); and finally (iv) website (DGA 2017). Major constituents and some

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Fig. 1 a Atacama Desert regional location. b Important locations mentioned in the text that are within the Atacama Desert. c Historic
precipitation (data from CR2, 2017)

trace elements of saline water and brines were main geological features of the desert and to compile
extensively documented by Risacher et al. (1999). information from literature related to Earth materials
Hot springs were studied for major constituents (K?, such as rocks, sediments, soils, saline precipitates,
Na?, Ca2?, Mg2?, HNO3-, SO42-, Cl-), As, B, and Li tailing impoundments, saline water and brines, fluvial
(Hauser 1997). Geochemistry, as it pertains to ground- and lacustrine water, groundwater, and hot springs.
water, has been mostly studied to better understand This manuscript, from a geological and geochemical
mineralization (Leybourne and Cameron 2006, 2008; perspective, will highlight the unique characteristics
Soto 2010). of the Atacama Desert that make it unlike any
In this review of the geology and geochemistry of environment on Earth.
the Atacama Desert, the primary focus is to present the

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Physiography and geomorphology In this geomorphological framework, chemical

weathering is low and mechanical weathering of
The landscape of the Atacama Desert reflects the bedrock appears as a fundamental process in the
active Andean orogeny after the middle Cretaceous formation of soils. Only a few fluvial systems cross the
period which was formed by compression and sub- western slope of the Andes, intersecting distinct
duction of an oceanic plate below continental crust. physiographic units (Fig. 2). In the northern segment,
Bivergent thrusts and uplift were strongly intensified exorheic catchments show canyon morphologies that
during the Cenozoic era, however the nature and incise the extensively low relief surface with pedi-
actual timing of the uplift is still debated (Armijo et al. ments. These valleys are characterized by very steep
2015 and references therein). From the Cenozoic hills and a narrow valley bottom where ephemeral and
period onward, climatic conditions have been influ- intermittent streams were developed. Only some
enced by the Andes uplift which changed the atmo- valleys show perennial streams such as the Lluta,
spheric circulation patterns (Insel et al. 2010 and Azapa, Camarones, and Camiña rivers (Fig. 1b). In the
references therein) in addition to mass circulation in central segment, with the exception of the Loa River,
the ocean and global climate change during the catchments do not reach the Pacific Ocean and their
Cenozoic era (e.g., Zachos et al. 2001). The pro- geomorphological evolution is related to hydrologic
nounced duration of these conditions, magnitude of capture as the result of tectonic and geomorphic
orogenic processes, and arid to hyperarid climate of factors (e.g. in the Quillagua reach). Finally, in the
the Atacama Desert resulted in very low rates of southern segment, the increase of precipitation and its
erosion (Carretier et al. 2018). orographic control signifies more favorable conditions
Five elongated physiographic units constitute the for the development of exorheic catchments, such as
present landscape of the Atacama Desert: (i) the for the Taltal, El Salado, and Copiapó rivers; however,
Coastal Cordillera, (ii) the Central Depression, (iii) the the first two present ephemeral conditions whereas the
Precordillera or Domeyko Cordillera, (iv) the Alti- latter is intermittent (Fig. 1b).
plano, and (v) the Western Cordillera (Fig. 2). From
Late Paleozoic to Recent, a convergent margin has
been the dominant tectonic setting of the western Geology of the Atacama Desert
margin of South America, and the characteristics of
each physiographic unit can be correlated to magmatic Rocks of the Atacama Desert can be divided into two
belts of the past. At 24.5 "S, the Coastal Cordillera main groups: (i) older rocks, which are of Pre-
reaches up to 3000 m.a.s.l. and is limited to the west Mesozoic era, that correspond to the basement and
by marine terraces and a large coastal cliff that show (ii) younger rocks, from the Mesozoic onwards, which
evidence of coastal uplift during the Neogene period are related to the convergent margin, distinct mag-
(e.g. Martinod et al. 2016). To the east, the Central matic and volcanic chains (younger in the eastward
Depression represents a conjunction of pediment direction), and Andean uplift.
surfaces and longitudinal basins characterized by The oldest rocks, or the Pre-Mesozoic basement,
isolated Cenozoic sedimentation and arid climatic correspond to scattered metamorphic outcrops of
conditions (e.g. Riquelme et al. 2007). The Precordil- Precambrian age exposed in the Precordillera and
lera or Domeyko Cordillera is the most prominent Coastal Cordillera (ca. 1100–800 Ma; e.g. Pankhurst
relief feature in the Atacama Desert. Perched sub- et al. 2016) in addition to Early Paleozoic igneous and
planar surfaces show Neogene cycles of pedimenta- sedimentary outcrops located to the south of the
tion and Plio-pleistocene incision of the current Atacama Salt flat (e.g. Augustsson et al. 2015;
valleys (e.g. Aguilar et al. 2011). To the east, in the Niemeyer et al. 2014). From the Late Carboniferous
Western Cordillera, Neogene stratovolcanos reach to Permian (ca. 330–270 Ma), when the Pangea
2000 meters over the Altiplano (average 4000 m supercontinent was present, a subduction-related
a.s.l.), a group of endorheic basins filled with Neogene magmatic arc was active in the Precordillera (e.g.
evaporitic, siliciclastic, and volcanic successions Maksaev et al. 2014 and reference therein). This stage
(Jordan et al. 2014; and references therein; Fig. 2). provoked the deposition of volcanic rocks and
emplacement of plutonic (granitic) bodies which are

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N-S Transcurrent faults of the Upper Tertiary. ea n B'

NW-NE faults related to the Andes uplift. Western
Basement rocks. Cordillera
Surface materials (sediments, soils, saline
precipitates, tailing impoundments, and
or Domeyko
surface water).

t flat
Coastal Depression
B Platform




Sedimentary Rocks Intrusive Rocks

Kg Upper Tertiary to Recent Tsg
Continental sediments Upper Tertiary
Pzg Jg Tig
Continental and volcanic sedimentary rocks Lower Tertiary
Continental rocks Kg
Continental and volcanic sedimentary rocks Cretaceous
Volcanic rocks Jg
Marine sedimentary rocks Jurassic
0 10 20 km Paleozoic
Metamorphic rocks of sedimentary protolith Pzg

Fig. 2 Geomorphological and geological sections of the Atacama Desert (obtained from Risacher et al. 1999). B–B0 transect of Fig. 1

exposed in a nearly continuous longitudinal belt of Precordillera (e.g. Ardill et al. 1998). This calcareous
outcrops in the uplifted central blocks of the Domeyko marine basin was closed and inverted at the end of
Cordillera. Early Cretaceous period (Amilibia et al. 2008), and
Since the Mesozoic onward, the evolution of magmatic activity migrated to the east to what
subduction has shaped the geology of the Atacama currently corresponds to the eastern Central Depres-
Desert, and a series of N–S longitudinal magmatic sion and western slope of the Precordillera. Late
belts can be recognized from west to east (Fig. 2). The Cretaceous to Paleogene (72–48 Ma) bimodal igneous
Coastal Cordillera is constituted by thick volcanic rocks, namely lava and pyroclastics deposits (e.g.
(andesitic) sequences and related plutonic bodies; Espinoza et al. 2011, 2012), as well as minor
these formed in a magmatic arc related to Late Triassic continental sedimentary rocks (e.g. Mpodozis et al.
to Early Cretaceous subduction (e.g. Casquet et al. 2005), were deposited in a longitudinal volcanic arc at
2014; Oliveros et al. 2007; Fig. 2). To the east of this this location.
magmatic arc, a marine back-arc basin was filled with During the Late to Early Oligocene (ca. 42–35 Ma),
fossiliferous and calcareous materials forming sedi- a relevant deformation event known as the Incaic
mentary rocks that crop out in the slope of the Phase was responsible for uplift of the Precordillera,

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coinciding with the emplacement of a series of Cu-rich 2016), and secondary enrichment in porphyry copper
igneous bodies (porphyry Cu) that are scattered along deposits (Sillitoe and Perelló 2005).
the mountain chain. After this stage and since the The richness in mineral deposits of the Atacama
Miocene, continental sedimentation was a conse- Desert has led to the development of numerous large-
quence of landscape denudation due to arid to scale mining exploration campaigns during the
hyperarid climatic conditions. As a result, alluvial Anthropocene. As such, within the Atacama Desert,
gravel to sandy sedimentary deposits known as there are numerous mines of great significance; such
Atacama Gravels (Mortimer 1973) covered most of examples are (i) the Cu–Mo porphyries of Chuquica-
the slopes of the Precordillera and Central Depression. mata, Zaldı́var, La Escondida, and El Salvador; (ii) the
In addition, during the Neogene, the nitrate and iodine- stratabound deposits of Mantos Blancos, Michilla,
rich soil known as caliche was deposited, representing Manto de la Luna and Manto Verde; (iii) the iron oxide
a unique feature of the Central Depression in the Cu–Au (IOCG) deposits of Esperanza and Candelaria
Atacama Desert (Álvarez et al. 2016). and (iv) the epithermal deposits of El Peñón, San
Since the Neogene period onward, volcanic activity Cristóbal, Guanaco, El Hueso and La Coipa (Fig. 1b),
migrated eastwards, and during the Miocene era, among others.
ignimbrite (pyroclastic) flows were extensively depos- As the result of widespread and often unregulated
ited in the Altiplano. This physiographic unit started to mining activities, during the Anthropocene, well-
uplift ca. 25 Ma contributing to the building of the known cases of pollution developed. For instance, air
Andes Mountains (e.g. Allmendinger et al. 1997; pollution has been registered in the surroundings of the
Jordan et al. 2010). In this context, a series of smelter of Chuquicamata (Orihuela 2014; Fig. 1b) and
endorheic basins between the Precordillera and the Cu ore processing facility in Tocopilla (Jorquera 2009;
Altiplano were formed between ca. 23–25 "S (Fig. 2); Fig. 1b). The mines of Potrerillos and El Salvador
these basins host active salt flat deposits where the (Fig. 1b), which exploited Cu–Mo porphyries,
Atacama and Punta Negra salt flats are the most dumped nearly 150 9 106 tons of tailing impound-
prominent. The present-day volcanic activity is con- ments directly into El Salado River between 1938 and
centrated along the Western (or Main) Cordillera, 1975 (Castilla 1983); currently, the smelter of
along the Chile-Argentina border, corresponding to a Potrerillos (Fig. 1b) is responsible for water and
series of stratovolcanoes that extrude lava and pyro- sediment pollution (Tapia et al. 2018), among other
clastic flows of acidic to intermediate composition. impacts on the environment.

Mineral deposits and the Anthropocene

Geochemistry of the Atacama Desert
The arid to hyperarid conditions of the Atacama
Desert have been studied in a number of previous In the Atacama Desert, the previously described
works with the predominant intent of identifying the geologic and anthropogenic features are characterized
start of those conditions. Some hypotheses state that by their distinct rocks and materials. The geochemistry
they begin as early as the late Triassic (Clarke 2006) or of these features can be divided in three main types:
late Jurassic (Hartley et al. 2005), yet most indicate rocks, surface materials (including sediments, soils,
they started recently in late Oligocene ca. 23 Ma saline precipitates, and tailing impoundments), and
(Dunai et al. 2005), mid-Miocene (ca. 14 Ma; Alpers water. Their chemistry, more specifically, can be
and Brimhall 1989), Upper Miocene (ca. 10 Ma; Hoke understood through the main and trace constituents
et al. 2004), or late Pliocene (Hartley and Chong present.
2002). These arid to hyperarid climatic conditions
have resulted in distinguishable characteristics of the Geochemistry of rocks
Atacama Desert such as salt flats enriched in Li (Ide
and Kunasz 1990; Risacher et al. 1999) and B The chemical composition of hard rocks that are
(Risacher et al. 1999), large nitrate deposits (Pérez- present on the surface of the Atacama Desert varies
Fodich et al. 2014), iodine deposits (Álvarez et al. significantly with longitude, whereas it remains rather
constant as a function of the latitude (e.g. Haschke

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et al. 2006; Mamani et al. 2010; Rogers and Hawkes- intrusions, a feature related to the origin of Mesozoic
worth 1989). Such segmentation of the chemistry is IOCG deposits in the Coastal Cordillera widely
the result of the subduction-dominated South Amer- recognized for Cu. Titanium and V show a strong
ican plate, where the geological record represents correlation among all studied rocks, reflecting the
successive arc domains at the plate margin (Mpodozis importance of Fe–Ti oxides in Andean magmatism.
and Ramos 1990). Cobalt, Ni, and Cr are uniformly depleted relative to
the primitive mantle, indicating strong fractionation
Major oxides prior to the generation of most igneous rocks.

The SiO2 content in the rocks of the Atacama Desert is Geochemistry of surface materials
slightly variable from west to east, with the Coastal
Cordillera exhibiting the lowest values through Juras- Surface materials in the Atacama Desert including
sic-Late Cretaceous magmatism. From the Central sediments, soils, saline precipitates, and tailing
Depression to the east, the values are more variable but impoundments are described below.
are normally over 55% of the total volume of the rocks
(Fig. 3). A negative correlation of Ca, Mg, Fe, Ti, Mn Major oxides
and Al with Si is observed for most of the igneous
rocks (Figs. 3a,c,d), whereas positive correlations are In general, geochemical data for the main oxides
found for K, Na, and P (Fig. 3b). Enrichment in Fe shows that there exists a strong correlation between
over Mg with differentiation is not observed with the SiO2 and Al2O3, and SiO2 and K2O in sediments
exception of some Jurassic volcanics, consistent with (Fig. 3), indicating an enrichment of Al and K in more
the calc-alkaline nature of the Paleozoic to Recent felsic-derived sediments.
igneous rocks. Metamorphic rocks have a Si content On the contrary, in sediments, Ca (Fig. 3c) and Fe
between 50 and 60% wt., and in general exhibit higher (Fig. 3d) oxides are indirectly related to SiO2 which
contents of Al, Fe, Na, and Ca in comparison with indicates an expected depletion of these elements in
igneous rocks. more felsic-derived sediments. The flat sloping trends
observed for CaO (Fig. 3c) are related to volcanic and
Trace elements continental rocks of Oligocene to Miocene ages
located close to the Andes Mountains. Flat trends
The rare-earth elements (REE) in the Atacama Desert observed for Fe2O3 (Fig. 3d) are related to Oligocene
are enriched relative to chondrite in all rock types, to Quaternary continental deposits located close to the
with the lowest contents in some Mesozoic plutons. A Coastal Cordillera.
unique characteristic of the distribution of REE is that The relationship between major oxides in tailing
the ratio of light (LREE) to heavy (HREE) elements, impoundments (SERNAGEOMIN 2017) in the Ata-
represented by chondrite-normalized La/Sm and La/ cama Desert shows variable trends (Fig. 3).
Yb, generally decreases with age (Haschke et al. 2006;
and references therein); it is also at its maximum in Geochemical anomalies related to mineral deposits
some Eocene–Oligocene intrusions related to por-
phyry copper deposits (Reich et al. 2003; Richards The geochemistry of mineral deposits has been
2011). The Eu content in all rocks is normally lower extensively documented in the Atacama Desert.
than other REE, reflecting the strong control of Special attention has been given to nitrates, iodine,
plagioclase fractionation in Andean magmas. In a lithium, boron, and copper.
similar way, some HREE depletions in Cretaceous to
Holocene rocks might reflect deeper sources of Nitrates and iodine The Atacama Desert is the
magmatism and their relation to thicker crust world’s premier source of natural nitrate minerals,
(Haschke et al. 2006; Mamani et al. 2010). Base which are hosted in the nitrate soils or caliche
metals (Fe–Cu–Zn–Pb) are in the normal range of deposits. These deposits are unique because no
intermediate igneous rocks (Fig. 4), but they are equivalent accumulations of nitrate are found
slightly higher in Jurassic volcanics and some elsewhere (Ericksen 1981, 1983). Nitrate deposits

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(a) (b)

(c) (d)

Fig. 3 Oxide plots of volcanic and plutonic rocks (Mamani versus K2O, c SiO2 versus CaO, d SiO2 versus F2O3. Note All
et al. 2010 and references therein), sediments (SERNAGEO- individual plots (a–d) have the same x-axis, as shown in the
MIN 2012a, b, c), and tailing impoundments (SERNAGEOMIN bottommost plots of c and d. All data in wt%
2017) of the Atacama Desert. a SiO2 versus Al2O3, b SiO2

are complex assemblages of highly soluble nitrates but also because they are significantly enriched in
(* 7–15% NO3), iodates, chlorides, sulfates, iodine. Concentrations of the latter exceed the average
perchlorates, borates, and chromates. They are upper continental crust (UCC) average value
located along the eastern margin of the Coastal (1.4 lg g-1; Rudnick and Gao 2003) by 3–4 orders
Cordillera between 19"300 S and 26 "S, in an almost of magnitude, ranging from 2 to 4000 lg g-1, with an
continuous * 700 km-long, * 20 km-wide belt, average concentration of approximately 700 lg g-1
only interrupted by salt flats and the Loa River. (Álvarez et al. 2015). Hence, the Atacama Desert is the
Nitrate deposits of the Atacama Desert are unique world’s premier producer of natural iodine, which is
not only because of their high nitrate concentrations, extracted from the caliche ore as iodate (IO3-)

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minerals, such as lautarite, fuenzalidite, and hector- Copper Mineralization of copper can be broadly
floresite (Pueyo et al. 1998). Aside from nitrate related to IOCG and stratabound deposits in the
deposits, anomalous iodine mineral occurrences in Coastal Cordillera as well as to porphyry copper
the Atacama Desert have been documented in the deposits in the Precordillera (Fig. 2). Mineralization
supergene zones and soils developed above copper related to the Jurassic-Lower Cretaceous metallogenic
deposits (e.g., Cameron et al. 2010; Reich et al. 2013), belt (Sillitoe 2003) is constituted by the magnetite-
as well as in different types of natural waters (Álvarez dominated, sulfide-poor deposits of the Chilean Iron
et al. 2016). Belt (Espinoza 1990), and productive Cu-Au centers
Several theories about the origin of nitrate deposits (e.g., the Candelaria-Punta del Cobre and Mantoverde
have been proposed. Recent studies suggest a multi- districts; Benavides et al. 2007).
source origin for the principal components of nitrate The Atacama Desert also hosts important porphyry
deposits. These include predominant atmospheric copper deposits such as Chuquicamata-El Abra (Bal-
sources (Michalski et al. 2004) such as dry deposition lard et al. 2001; Campbell et al. 2006), Spence
(nitrates, perchlorates) and sea spray inputs (sulfate, (Leybourne and Cameron 2006, 2008; Reich et al.
chloride and calcium components), in addition to 2008), La Escondida (Garza et al. 2001; Ortiz et al.
deeper sources related to groundwater flow (chro- 1986), and El Salvador (Cornejo et al. 1997; Gustafson
mates, iodates) from large-scale circulation and mix- and Hunt 1975). From a geochemical perspective,
ing of fluids of meteoric, sedimentary, and volcanic these deposits are characterized by high concentra-
origins (Álvarez et al. 2015; Pérez-Fodich et al. 2014). tions of Cu, Mo, and to a lesser extent Au and Re,
which are linked to Cu-bearing sulfides such as
Lithium, boron, and potassium The Atacama Desert chalcopyrite, bornite, chalcocite, and gangue minerals
also hosts important Li, B, and K deposits, most of (i.e. pyrite, arsenopyrite, quartz, and calcite) (Sillitoe
which are located in salt flats to the west (Pre-Andean 2010). These deposits were and continue to be
basins) and within the Altiplano (Gajardo 2014). The intensively exploited in the Atacama Desert. How-
source of these elements is believed to be related to ever, as a result, extremely high values of Cu and Mo
inputs of Cenozoic volcanic activity, the weathering of can be expelled into the environment from tailing
volcanic rocks, and hot springs (Alonso et al. 1991; impoundments associated with mining processes
Gajardo 2014). Specifically for the Atacama Salt flat, (Fig. 4).
the origin of Li is related to (i) geothermal waters
associated with active volcanism, (ii) leaching of Additional trace elements
water-soluble salts from volcanic rocks, (iii) leaching
of Li-rich clays, and (iv) saline water of lakes and salt From an environmental perspective, arsenic has been
flats at high elevations of the Andes (Ide and Kunasz extensively studied in the Atacama Desert (Risacher
1990). High concentrations of Li have been also et al. 1999; Romero et al. 2003; SERNAGEOMIN
documented in Neogene evaporites, which reside in 2012a, b, c; Tapia et al. 2018). This element is highly
closed drainages within and adjacent to the volcanic concentrated there, especially in brines and salt flats,
arc, facilitating the capture of all products of and its suggested origin is similar to that of Li, B, and
geothermal activity (Alonso et al. 1991). The K (Alonso et al. 1991). Arsenic shows concentrations
enrichment of these elements is believed to be well above the UCC average in the Atacama Desert
related to high rates of evaporation (approximately and this trend does not reflect the geochemistry of
3200 mm year-1), scarce precipitation (Gajardo volcanic or plutonic rocks of the region (Fig. 4). The
2014), and the presence of endorheic basins in the highest concentration values are related to saline
Pre-Andean and Altiplano areas (Alonso et al. 1991). precipitates (Tapia et al. 2018) and Neogene evapor-
Reserves of Li have been estimated in the Atacama ites (Alonso et al. 1991). Boron and Li enrichment has
salt flat at 6.3 million tons, while in Pedernales and also been observed in saline precipitates (Fig. 4).
Maricunga, salt flats contain 240,000 and 280,000 In relation to other trace elements such as Co, Fe,
tons, respectively (Gajardo 2014). Mn, V, and Zn, which are poorly documented in
surface materials of the Atacama Desert, it is observed
that these elements reflect the geochemistry of

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

b Fig. 4 Box plots of concentrations of arsenic (As), boron (B), Francisco (Risacher et al. 1999), and in fluvial water
cobalt (Co), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), lithium (Li), from Rı́o Azufre (Sulfur River; DGA 2017; Fig. 1b).
manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), lead (Pb), vanadium (V),
and zinc (Zn) in volcanic and intrusive rocks, soils and regolith, Total dissolved solids (TDS) present the highest
sediments, saline precipitates, and tailing impoundments of the concentrations in saline water, brines, and hot springs
Atacama Desert. The dotted line indicates the average (Table 1). The electric conductivity is highly variable,
concentration of the upper continental crust (Rudnick and Gao but in general is the highest in saline water and brines
(Table 1). In the Atacama Desert, surface water features
such as lakes and rivers are generally not deep, therefore
temperature depends on the sampling time which tends
volcanic and intrusive rocks in sediments and soils and
to be the highest at midday. The highest water
show similar average concentration values to those of
temperatures are related to hot springs (Table 1).
the UCC. Saline precipitates are in general depleted in
these elements, and tailing impoundments show a
Major constituents
slight enrichment in Fe, Mn, V, and Zn (Fig. 4).
Chromium is depleted in comparison to the UCC, yet
Major water constituents such as Mg2?, Ca2?, Na?,
it exhibits similar values in surface materials to those
K?, SO42-, Cl- and HCO3- are well-documented in
observed for rocks of the Atacama Desert. Saline
saline water and brines (Risacher et al. 1999), fluvial
precipitates are depleted in Cr and the median
and lacustrine water (DGA 2017), and hot springs
concentration in tailing impoundments is similar to
(Hauser 1997), yet there is little information available
that of the UCC average (Fig. 4).
regarding groundwater (Leybourne and Cameron
Trace elements such as Mo and Pb are studied
2006, 2008; Soto 2010) and CO32-. With the excep-
mainly for exploration of mineral resources or for the
tion of HCO3-, there is a strong correlation between
assessment of potential areas of contamination. It is
most major water constituents of the distinct water
evident that extremely high values of Mo and Pb are
types (Fig. 5).
associated with tailing impoundments; nonetheless,
sediments, soils, and to a lesser extent saline precip-
Trace elements
itates exhibit similar concentrations to Atacama
Desert volcanic and plutonic rocks (Fig. 4). The
Trace elements in water of the Atacama Desert that are
spatial distribution of these elements shows positive
well documented are: As (DGA 2017; Hauser 1997;
anomalies close to the HMC cathode production
Risacher et al. 1999; Romero et al. 2003; Tapia et al.
facility in the Tarapacá Region (Fig. 1b), among other
2018), B (DGA 2017; Hauser 1997; Risacher et al.
mining-related facilities and localities such as the
1999; Romero et al. 2003), Li (Hauser 1997; Risacher
Potrerillos smelter and Caleta Palito which have been
et al. 1999; Romero et al. 2003; Tapia et al. 2018) and
affected by the release of tailings since the 1970s
Cu (Leybourne and Cameron 2008; Soto 2010; Tapia
(Fig. 1b). These trends indicate that the enrichment of
et al. 2018). The elements Co, Cr, Fe, Mn, Mo, Pb, V,
these elements is most likely related to anthropogenic
and Zn are not well-documented and related informa-
activities, namely mining.
tion in the Atacama Desert is scarce (MOP 2017).
Box plots showing the available concentration data are
Water chemistry
presented in Fig. 6.
In the Atacama Desert, the most enriched elements
Water in the Atacama Desert is scarce due to arid to
in water when compared to the average concentration
hyperarid conditions. The few available water
of rivers worldwide are As, B, and Li; their concen-
resources are present as brines, saline water, fluvial
trations are similar between the various water types,
and lacustrine surface water, groundwater, and hot
yet the highest are related to brines (Fig. 6). From the
springs (Table 1).
available data, it is evident that (i) Cu concentrations
In general, the various water sources exhibit average
are higher in groundwater, (ii) Co values are higher in
circumneutral pH. Acidic waters are only found at
surface water and groundwater, (iii) Mo, V, and Zn are
specific sites, such as the Gorbea and Ignorado salt flats,
more concentrated in brines, (iv) Cr and Pb show
in springs located close to the Laguna del Negro
variable concentration values depending on the water

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

(a) (b)

(c) (d)

(e) (f)

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

b Fig. 5 Major constituents of water in the Atacama Desert. unique characteristics related to the physiography,
a SO42- versus Cl-, b SO42- versus HCO3-, c SO42- versus geomorphology, geology, and geochemistry of the
K?, d SO42- versus Na?, e SO42- versus Ca2?, f SO42- versus
Mg2?. Note All individual plots (a–f) have the same x-axis, as Atacama Desert that reflect conditions of water
shown in the bottommost plots of e and f. All data is presented in scarcity present since at least the Late Pliocene
mg L-1. Brines TDS[50,000 mg L-1, saline water 500\TDS (Hartley and Chong 2002). The compressive subduc-
(mg L-1)\50,000, and fluvial and lacustrine water TDS\500 tion, Andean uplift, and establishment of arid to hyper
mg L-1
arid conditions in this desert, as well as their origins,
are still in debate. Nonetheless, there is evidence
type, yet are more concentrated in fluvial and lacus- which supports the premise that conditions of the
trine water, and (v) with the exception of hot springs, Atacama Desert were suitable to generate secondary
for Fe and Mn, concentrations are quite similar enrichment in porphyry copper deposits, iodine
between the distinct water types and are close to the deposits, nitrate deposits, extremely saline environ-
average concentrations of rivers worldwide (Fig. 6). ments in endorheic hydrologic systems (such as salt
flats enriched in As, B, K, and Li), and life under
extreme conditions.
Conclusions Active research is still being undertaken in the
Atacama Desert. One research area of importance is
As evidenced from the various geologic and geo- related to extremely high concentration of As, B, K,
chemical features discussed, there are intriguing and and Li in endorheic basins of the Atacama Desert; in

Table 1 Main physio- pH TDS Conductivity Temperature

chemical characteristics of mg L-1 lS cm-1 "C
water in the Atacama Desert
n 94 86 88 92
Average 7.3 165,003 151,019 14.5
Range 1.3–10.8 50,618–341,759 47,100–1,229,000 1.5–29.5
r 1.4 96,294 128,111 6.3
Saline water
n 366 356 342 362
Average 7.8 8630 12,055 13.4
Range 2.0–10.5 510–48,710 393–288,000 -1 to 35
r 1.1 10,551 19,991 6.9
Fluvial and lacustrine water
n 407 133 329 248
Average 7.9 217 3321 15.2
Range 1.8–9.9 9.4–496 29–119,400 0.2–33.7
r 0.7 136 9150 6.7
n 122 60 25 71
Average 7.5 19,980 2100 25.9
Range 4.7–9.4 744–145,020 910–7396 9.9–35.3
r 0.7 22,710 1703 3.6
Hot springs
n 43 10 10 38
Average 7.4 4599 6661 46.3
Note n refers to the number Range 2.3–9.8 2.62–24,245 723–32,500 19–87.5
of samples and r is the r 1.2 7313 9714 20.7
standard deviation

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

6 8 2
10 10 10

5 As 7
B WHO recommendation Co
10 World average
Concentration (µg•L-1)

10 6
10 1
10 (µg•L-1) 10
10 0
3 2,400 (µg•L-1)
0.62 (µg•L-1) 2
10 10
0.148 (µg•L-1)
-2 1 10.2 (µg•L-1) 10
10 10
2 5
10 10

50 (µg•L-1)
Cr 4
Cu 10
5 Fe
Concentration (µg•L-1)

2,000 (µg•L )
10 10
10 66 (µg•L-1)

1 10
0 -1
10 0.7 (µg•L-1) 1.48 (µg•L )

10 10

7 5 4
10 10 10

6 Li 10
4 Mn Mo
5 3
10 10
Concentration (µg•L-1)

4 2
10 10 10

3 1 34 (µg•L-1)
10 10
2 0 10
10 10

1 -1
10 10 0
1.48 (µg•L-1) 10
0 -2
0.42 (µg•L-1)
10 10

-1 -3 -1
10 10 10
4 3 5
10 10 10

Pb V 4
3 10
Concentration (µg•L-1)

1 1
10 10
0 10 0.6 (µg•L-1)
10 0.71 (µg•L-1)
10 -1
0.079 (µg•L-1)
10 10 10

Brine Saline water Fluvial and lacustrine water Groundwater Hot springs
TDS > 50,000 mg•L-1 500 < TDS (mg•L-1) < 50,000 TDS < 500 mg•L-1

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek

b Fig. 6 Element concentration box plots for arsenic (As), boron Alonso RN, Jordan TE, Tabbutt KT, Vandervoort DS (1991)
(B), cobalt (Co), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), iron (Fe), lithium Giant evaporite belts of the Neogene central Andes.
(Li), manganese (Mn), molybdenum (Mo), lead (Pb), vanadium Geology 19:401–404.
(V), and zinc (Zn) in brines, saline water, fluvial and lacustrine 7613(1991)019\0401:GEBOTN[2.3.CO;2
water, groundwater, and hot springs of the Atacama Desert. The Alpers CN, Brimhall GH (1989) Paleohydrologic evolution and
widely spaced dotted line represents the world average geochemical dynamics of cumulative supergene metal
concentration (lg L-1) of each element in fluvial systems. enrichment at La Escondida, Atacama Desert, northern
The closely spaced dotted line represents the World Health Chile. Econ Geol 84:229–255.
Organization (WHO) recommended concentrations for As, B, gsecongeo.84.2.229
Cr, and Cu, in lg L-1 Álvarez F, Reich M, Pérez-Fodich A, Snyder G, Muramatsu Y,
Vargas G, Fehn U (2015) Sources, sinks and long-term
cycling of iodine in the hyperarid Atacama continental
margin. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 161:50–70. https://doi.
particular, besides climatic conditions, are bacteria org/10.1016/j.gca.2015.03.032
Álvarez F, Reich M, Snyder G, Pérez-Fodich A, Muramatsu Y,
controlling their mobilization in water? Many other
Daniele L, Fehn U (2016) Iodine budget in surface waters
important questions still remain. What is the role of from Atacama: natural and anthropogenic iodine sources
bacteria in the secondary enrichment of porphyry revealed by halogen geochemistry and iodine-129 isotopes.
copper deposits? Is bacterial activity related to iodine Appl Geochem 68:53–63.
or nitrate enrichment? As concluded, the basement
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Li concentrations in saline precipitates. Therefore, a tecture in the development of the central Andean mountain
collaborative effort between distinct disciplines will belt: insights from the Cordillera de Domeyko. J Struct
Geol 30:1520–1539.
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questions in the future. Ardill J, Flint S, Chong G, Wilke H (1998) Sequence stratig-
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Acknowledgements We sincerely thank Alan Bull for the J Geol Soc 155:71–88.
invitation to participate in this special issue in addition to the 0071
anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments and Armijo R, Lacassin R, Coudurier-Curveur A, Carrizo D (2015)
suggestions. We thank Pablo Zúñiga for the compilation of Coupled tectonic evolution of Andean orogeny and global
water data and Brandon Schneider for English improvement. climate. Earth-Sci Rev 143:1–35.
This review was partially funded by the grant entitled Programa earscirev.2015.01.005
de Inserción en la Academia (PAI) 79150070. Augustsson C, Rüsing T, Niemeyer H, Kooijman E, Berndt J,
Bahlburg H, Zimmermann U (2015) 0.3 byr of drainage
Compliance with ethical standards stability along the Palaeozoic palaeo-Pacific Gondwana
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Conflict of interest The authors declare that they have no
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(2001) Two ages of porphyry intrusion resolved for the
Ethical approval This article does not contain any studies super-giant Chuquicamata copper deposit of northern Chile
with human participants or animals performed by any of the by ELA-ICP-MS and SHRIMP. Geology 29:383–386.
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