atacama dessert

Atacama Desert


Penitentes are the name of the caps of the nazarenos; literally those doing penance for their sins.

Louis Lliboutry noted that the key climatic condition for the differential ablation that leads to the formation of penitentes is that dew point is always below freezing. Thus, snow will sublimate, because sublimation requires a higher energy input than melting. Once the process of differential ablation starts, the surface geometry of the evolving penitente produces a positive feedback mechanism, and radiation is trapped by multiple reflections between the walls. The hollows become almost a black body for radiation, while decreased wind leads to air saturation, increasing dew point temperature and the onset of melting. In this way peaks, where mass loss is only due to sublimation, will remain, as well as the steep walls, which intercept only a minimum of solar radiation. In the troughs ablation is enhanced, leading to a downward growth of penitentes.