Surface Microbials in the Atacama
November 19, 2018 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Unprecedented rains decimate surface microbial communities in the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert This driest and oldest desert on Earth has experienced a number of highly unusual rain events over the past three years, resulting in the formation of previously unrecorded hypersaline lagoons, which have lasted several months. Here we show that the sudden and massive input of water in regions that have remained hyperarid for millions of years is harmful for most of the surface soil microbial species, which are exquisitely adapted to survive with meager amounts of liquid water, and quickly perish from osmotic shock when water becomes suddenly abundant.
posted by MovableBookLady (6 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If only it rained Gatorade in the Atacama like it does in Europe
posted by XMLicious at 12:32 PM on November 19, 2018

Life recapitulating SF again -- I seem to recall that the worm larvae in Dune were deathly allergic to water.
posted by Quindar Beep at 1:53 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

The subtext of this article may not be immediately clear to the casual reader.

The Atacama is an alien enough environment that it is very seriously used as a model for Mars, in terms of understanding habitability for life in that sort of environment. So you have a whole bunch of scientists continually studying the place and the extremophile lifeforms found there, not just because it's interesting in itself in the context of Earth, but because it can help us understand the survivability of life on other planets.

The authors of this article are astrobiologists, so that's probably what they were there to do too. This wasn't the paper they went there to write. It's the paper that's all they could salvage, because we're fucking up this planet so quickly that we're damaging our ability to even figure out how life might be able to survive elsewhere.
posted by automatronic at 3:47 PM on November 19, 2018 [13 favorites]

...arid for the past 150 million years, and hyperarid for the past 15 million years...

Mind. Blown.

And humans have managed to fuck it up just by starting the Industrial Revolution.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:04 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

To be fair to the soil microbes, it's not as though we - for all our vaunted intelligence, opposable thumbs, and various other advantages - handle unprecedented abundance of water all that well either.
posted by Naberius at 8:00 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Beyond even the immediate possibility of making the Atacama a non-viable Mars environment simulator, the destruction of the desert crust can actually impact a desert's ability to retain and absorb what water it does get. So too much water right now can also mean that five or ten years from now, the next time there's a flooding event, we might start to see enormous amounts of erosion and soil movement and channel formation, churning up the surface even more. The biological stability of the entire region is really dependent on the desert crust remaining intact.
posted by DSime at 9:04 AM on November 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

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