An integrated analysis of the March 2015 Atacama floods (2016)


An integrated analysis of the March 2015 Atacama floods

Publication Type

Journal Article

Year of Publication



Andrew C. Wilcox, Cristian Escauriaza, Roberto Agredano, Emmanuel Mignot, Vicente Zuazo, Sebastián Otárol, Lina Castro, Jorge Gironás, Rodrigo Cienfuegos, and Luca Mao

Journal Title

Geophysical Research Letters

Key Points

Unique atmospheric, hydrologic, and geomorphic factors generated the largest flood ever recorded in the Atacama Desert

The sediment-rich nature of the flood resulted from valley-fill erosion rather than hillslope unraveling

Anthropogenic factors increased the consequences of the flood and highlight the need for early-warning systems


In March 2015 unusual ocean and atmospheric conditions produced many years’ worth of rainfall in a ~48 h period over northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of Earth’s driest regions, resulting in catastrophic flooding. Here we describe the hydrologic and geomorphic drivers of and responses to the 2015 Atacama floods. In the Salado River, we estimated a flood peak discharge of approximately 1000 m3/s, which caused widespread damage and high sediment loads that were primarily derived from valley-fill erosion; hillslopes remained surprisingly intact despite their lack of vegetation. In the coastal city of Chañaral, flooding of the Salado River produced maximum water depths over 4.5 m, meters thick mud deposition in buildings and along city streets, and coastal erosion. The Atacama flooding has broad implications in the context of hazard reduction, erosion of contaminated legacy mine tailings, and the Atacama’s status as a terrestrial analog for Mars.


Corresponding Author

A. Wilcox, Email:

Line (s) of Research

Critical Resources