Runoff volume and sediment yield from an endorheic watershed generated by rare rainfall events in the Atacama Desert

Hernán Alcayaga, Marco Soto-Alvarez, Jonathan B. Laronne, Diego Caamaño, Luca Mao, Roberto Urrutia

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Surface runoff, channel activation and sediment transport processes in desert environments have been convincingly shown to strongly depend on the duration and intensity of local and convective rainfall events. Among these environments, the Atacama, considered the driest desert on Earth, is situated in a remote and rugged area, where documentation of historical and recent hydro-sedimentary processes is rare. We characterize the hydrological processes in an endorheic watershed of the Atacama's Altiplano Desert, where the occurrence of flash floods was evaluated on event-based signatures of water and sediment in a small ephemeral playa. Twelve pits were dug in the playa, with five identified event sediment couplets, each corresponding to computed flood volumes that gave rise to transport and depositional events occurring between 1978 and 2019. Detailed topography allowed reconstruction of a 3D terrain model, from which we estimated a 11.3 t/yr/km2 local historic sediment yield. The timing of the older identified events did not match local rainfall records, and proved to be uncorrelated with occurrences of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). This suggests a high spatial patchiness of rainfall events in terms of depth and intensity, and implies that small playa records are not necessarily always helpful in reconstructing the regional climatic history of the recent past. The sediment concentration and volume of the reconstructed hypercontracted events are not well corrected with the magnitude of the rainfall event, suggesting the important role played by variable sediment availability and connectivity at basin scale. This spatiotemporal variability plays a major role in understanding the present and historic hydro-sedimentary processes in the Atacama's altiplano.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108107
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2022


  • Atacama Desert
  • Large spatial variability of rainfall
  • Rainfall-runoff
  • Sediment transport
  • Sedimentation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes


Dive into the research topics of 'Runoff volume and sediment yield from an endorheic watershed generated by rare rainfall events in the Atacama Desert'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this