Entanglement of desert water: below and above
Entanglement of desert water: below and above

Entanglement of desert water: below and above

Research in progress: Three voices in the desert:  Underground water, extremophile bacteria and the remote gaze of the satellite.

Above: Southern Atacama Desert region, Dec 2021, sentinel satelite data via the Global Surface Water Viewer

This research considers contested water, power peripheries, and three gazes in this unique site and one of the driest places: The watery gaze of the natural aquifer and salare systems, the touch-gaze of unique extremophile bacteria living here and the remote gaze of the satellite orbiting the desert, powered by lithium batteries.


Working with the Joint Research Science Centre, Ispira, SACO, Antafogasta

In the salares of the Atacama desert region, these unique saline wetlands, live a unique, and until recently, poorly understood biodiversity of microbes. Able to survive saline, high solar radiation and temperature extremes they have evolved a unique set of microbial skills- from novel pigments to limit UV damage, to acids strong enough to etch a micro-habitat in the hard gypsum rich rocks around which they live, in addition to an active role in recycling greenhouse gases (CO2, NO2), and sulphur gases.

The salares are the only natural form of free water in this exquisitely dry environment and are fed by a deep-time network of natural aquifers. Ironically, the only water visible on the Global Surface Water Explorer tool for this lithium rich area of Atacama is seen in Lithium mine ponds, where it is pumped from the aquifer system to be evaporated for lithium salt collection; water mining for minerals.

These remote salares contain a series of conflicts that are increasingly common globally- limited water resources, hard currency from mining, unique, fragile ecologies, and a tension between humans, environment and economics.

The tension of water and ecosystem rights in Atacama is exquisitely difficult given the role lithium plays in bridging to a carbon-neutral energy sustainable future. Policies in sites of central power, such as EU impact directly on land management and the chances for a unique ecosystem survival in power peripheries such as Atacama.

Timelapse showing expansion from 2009 of saline water evaporation ponds for lithium extraction in the Atacama desert. Viewed and recalled by the Sentinel satellite and the Global Surface Water app. With thanks to the Land Use Change Management Unit and One Water project, Joint Research Centre, Ispira

Words and thoughts:

Visualising in 3D and sonifying aquifer system: Give shape and voice to the invisible and voiceless. While ‘water’ in Chile can be bought and sold; a tradable asset, brine isnt.

Considering the interspecies touch between populations of bacteria these salares and their lineage back to the first bacteria in the first ocean.  Every salar on the Altiplano has its own distinctive
microbial ancestral digital fingerprint. The microbes in the  Salar de Llamara exhibit ancient microbial metabolisms, oxodising CO2, like the first bacteria, before the Great Oxidation Event.