Dead Gods Of Atacama

Dead Gods Of Atacama originally appeared on DailyKos in 2009.

The Atacama Giant, an 86 meter tall geoglyph in the Chilean desert on Cerro Unitas was a deity to the natives of the region from about 1000 AD to 1400 AD.

Less well known but even more important were the fossil nitrate deposits of the region. Not a god in their own right, but more a god’s facilitator, this source of biologically available nitrogen is an unheralded unpinning of America’s manifest destiny of the 19th century – the Growth god’s will for the United States to expand and dominate north America was backed by millions of years of wind blown sea salt and lightning formed nitrates that fell in the driest lands on Earth.

El Gigante de Atacama stands a lonely vigil on a hillside overlooking a corner of the 70,000 square mile Atacama desert in northern Chile. The geoglyph is the largest prehistoric anthropomorphic figure in the world – 86 meters tall. The Marree Man outdoes it by orders of magnitude, but there were internal combustion engines involved in its creation during the 1990s.

Atacama Giant

The desert itself is unique. There are dry places on the Earth, but none like this one. Pinned between the Andes to the east and the Chilean coastal range to the west, with an inversion layer created by the cold Humboldt current the average precipitation is four inches … per century.

atacama

Original by iko.

atacama

Original by twiga269

atacama

Original by Feffef

mars8

Original by the Mars Spirit Rover

OK, clowning around a bit with that last one, but it’s only half a joke. The less than one millimeter of precipitation annually make this place more like Mars in some ways than Earth, and testing of Mars bound probes is sometimes done here.

I knew in a vague way that we’d mined bird and bat guano for fertilizer in the south Pacific before I became interested in renewable ammonia production and I learned of the Chilean nitrate deposits somewhere during my research last year, but finding this 1877 report by a Chilean government commissioner proved to be the mother load. I read all seventy some pages of the report and then dug further based on the information I found.

The rain shadow of the Chilean coastal range keeps the precipitation in the area at basically zero. The winds loft salt spray from the Pacific into the area, the water evaporates, and the salts fall into the desert. Lightning formed nitrates precipitate and combine to form what is called caliche. This happens all over the world – Iowa receives five to twenty pounds an acre of atmospheric nitrates annually – but it’s the nearly total lack of water that led to massive deposits forming in the region. The easily water soluble nitrates stay put and the caliche in some places was nearly ten feet deep.

Thomas Malthus began publishing An Essay on the Principles of Population in 1798 and the second edition was completed in 1803, with minor revisions continuing up until 1826. His fundamental thesis was that the world was bounded and that human population would hit limits. He knew that fertilizer was one of those limits but the Chilean deposits were just coming online as his life was ending. He was right that there were limits, but he was a bit premature in the timing of his predictions.

The fossil nitrates of the region were worked with a will for just about a century. The going got harder and in the early twentieth century again there were concerns that nitrate supplies would run short and humans would experience mass famine. Just in time to avert this German chemist Fritz Haber and German process engineer Carl Bosch created and perfected a large scale ammonia synthesis method. The required hydrogen was initially produced using hydroelectric power, but a cheaper method of extracting hydrogen from natural gas meant that this fertilizer source, too, would be based on fossil resources that would eventually run out.

Biological systems are bounded by Liebig’s law. The aggregate resources don’t matter, the limiting factor is the least available nutrient. Plants require nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus along with a bunch of micronutrients. We’re going to be facing a one two punch with nitrogen and phosphorus and there’s some debate as to which will hit first. Nitrogen is a concern due to the depletion of the fossil fuels used to produce the needed hydrogen and phosphorus due to the increasing energy requirements to mine and transport it.

We’re not sure exactly when but sooner or later we’re going to hit the wall on one of those two nutrients, and my personal guess is that nitrogen goes first. Carbon emissions controls coupled with natural gas depletion and regulatory inhibition of shale gas production due to the horrors it works on ground water will send ammonia prices on a roller coaster like the summer of 2008 and the volatility will limit needed investment. The only solution would be treating ammonia as a strategic resource; the foundation of such thinking was laid in the National Renewable Ammonia Architecture.

Even if we execute on that vision of fully renewable ammonia as both a fertilizer and a fuel we’re going to run into other limits – phosphorus, fresh water, the oil needed for our current agricultural methods. The global population at the publication of Malthus’ essay was about a billion. The century fossil nitrates from Atacama followed by a century of fossil fuel driven nitrogen production coupled with fossil fuel driven agriculture drove our population to seven times that number, which is triple or quadruple the sustainable number for this planet.

The Atacama nitrates are killing the god Growth the same way injecting a mix of benzene, surfactants, and hexavalent chromium into gas producing shale is going to kill the humans who depend on the aquifers above the injection sites. What at first seemed beneficial will later be determined to have caused not growth, but instead a metastasized mess.

Each moment arises out of the moment that preceded it. All things are impermanent; all gods die, from Anubis long ago to the nameless god on the Atacama desert hillside to the deities of Zoroastrianism soon enough. The god Growth will go, not silently, and not lamented, but cursed by those who understand what it has brought us.

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6 thoughts on “Dead Gods Of Atacama

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