Late Quaternary paleohydrology of the central Atacama Desert (lat 22°-24°S), Chile

Jason A. Rech, Jay Quade, Julio L. Betancourt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

149 Scopus citations


In northern Chile, precipitation in the High Andes (>3500 m) recharges groundwater systems that flow down the Pacific slope and feed large aquifers in the hyperarid Atacama Desert. Wetlands, which are often found along the base of the Andes, mark locations where the water table intersects the land surface. At these locations, paleo-wetland deposits, which are present as terraces between 3 and 20 m above modern wetlands, record past water-table heights along the Andean front and are used to reconstruct changes in groundwater discharge. Paleo-wetland deposits in the central Atacama Desert (lat 22°-24°S) record an episode (>15.4-9 ka) of high water tables followed by an episode (8-3 ka) of moderately high water tables. Elevated water tables result from increased groundwater discharge and ultimately from enhanced recharge in the Andes. The concordance of results from three separate hydrologic systems suggests that changes in groundwater discharge and recharge are regional and reflect climatic fluctuations. This interpretation is supported by close agreement with other paleoclimatic records in the region. The periods of greater groundwater discharge were separated by episodes (9-8 and 3-0 ka) of significant groundwater lowering and stream incision, implying greatly diminished discharge. The central Atacama and Andes (lat 22°-24°S) receive precipitation mainly from moist air masses transported from the Amazon Basin by the South American Summer Monsoon (SASM). Increases in groundwater recharge are therefore thought to reflect an increase in the frequency and/or moisture content of SASM air masses crossing the Andes. Fluctuations in SASM precipitation have previously been linked to summer insolation in the Southern Hemisphere. The wettest period in the central Atacama (>15.4-9 ka), however, coincides with a minimum in austral-summer insolation at 10 ka, suggesting that regional summer insolation is not a dominant influence on the SASM. Instead, intensification of the SASM may be linked to extraregional forcings such as the Walker Circulation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)334-348
Number of pages15
JournalBulletin of the Geological Society of America
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2002


  • Atacama Desert
  • Paleohydrology
  • South America
  • Springs
  • Wetlands

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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