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If you like being connected to the world everywhere you go with a smartphone or other device, then you have a desolate salt flat in northern Chile to thank.

The salt flat is the Salar de Atacama, one of the largest sources of lithium, a key ingredient in rechargeable batteries. The rectangular shapes in these Landsat images indicate where lithium mining is taking place. The increasing use of smartphones, laptops, and electric cars that use lithium-ion batteries ensures an ever higher demand for the soft, silvery metal.

The salar is in Chile’s Atacama Desert, probably the driest place on the planet. Water leaves the salar only through evaporation, a process that leaves behind salts. The white color around the edge of the salt flat is clay and carbonate-rich material. The center of the salt flat consists of hard crusts of sodium chloride. Under this crust are brines that contain large amounts of lithium, potassium, magnesium, and boron.

Not completely devoid of a water source, the northern part of the basin is the San Pedro River delta. The San Pedro is an ephemeral stream, delivering small amounts of surface water to the basin from the north. The water originates from the Andes Mountains after infrequent storms. These flows form alluvial fans, visible around the fringes of the salt pan.

The scant vegetation appears red in these images, especially around springs at the northern edge of the salt flat. The salt flat itself covers about 3,000 square kilometers, almost the size of Yosemite National Park in California.

Salar is Spanish for “salt flat.”


Every picture has a story to tell
Dec. 28, 1991, Landsat 5 (path/row 233/76) — Salar de Atacama, Chile
Dec. 21, 2006, Landsat 5 (path/row 233/76) — Salar de Atacama, Chile
Jan. 10, 2023, Landsat 9 (path/row 233/76) — Salar de Atacama, Chile


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