Thursday, November 21, 2013

Geography of Bolivia

Sandwiched between it's Peruvian, Argentinian and Brazillian neighbours, Bolivia remains one of the least visited countries in the continent. Archie, a volunteer from Manchester in the UK, explains Bolivia's geographical diversity, which make it such a fascinating place to explore and volunteer.  

While volunteering in Bolivia I've found it to be a truly amazing place.  However, in my opinion it is the diversity in landscape that makes it such a unique corner of the globe.

Travelling across Bolivia feels more like travelling across a continent than a country. Being 1,098,581 km2 in size, (4 times the size of the UK) and only having a population of 10,461,053 (a 6th of the population of the UK), the harshness of its landscapes can make it a hard place for humans to inhabit. It is, however, one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.  This is mainly due to a large percentage of the country being made up of rainforest and wetland; the ideal breeding ground for different species. 

One of Bolivia's most recognised and spectacular landscapes is Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, which can be seen from outer space.  Salar was formed by the evaporation of several prehistoric lakes over millions of years, which left a huge deposit of salt. In the salt flats, there are 50-70% of the lithium reserves of the world. This is an essential commodity in the modern world as it is needed for all iPods, iPhones and other similar electronic devices. Salar is also a climatologically transitional zone (which means it changes the weather of a huge area) because the clouds that form on the eastern side in the summer cannot reach the drier western side, preventing rain reaching the Atacama Desert. 
Lake Titicaca 

The Atacama Desert is a desert spreading over Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Argentina.  It´s known to be the driest place in the world, with an average of 15 millimeters of rain a year. It is said that this is because it’s situated between two mountain ranges, the Andes and the Chilean coastal range, preventing sufficient moisture reaching it from either the Pacific or the Atlantic oceans.

The altiplano is probably Bolivia’s most distinct geographical feature, ranging from 12,000 and 15,000 feet, 500 miles long and, in parts, over 150 miles wide.  The Cordillera Real is the highest of the Bolivian ranges.  In the area surrounding La Paz, five mountains rise to over 20,000 feet. The snowline is at about 18,000 feet, above which glaciers cling to the mountain faces. The altiplano also holds the world highest navigable lake, Titicaca (at a height of 3800m). It is a fresh water lake which deposits into Lago Poopo, a unique lake that has a mean depth of 3 metres, and lacks a major outlet. This means its surface varies greatly.  In 1986 it had a recorded area of 3,500 km², which then slowly evaporated until 1994, by when the lake had disappeared completely. Lago Poopo is a salt water lake, making it undrinkable for most of Bolivia’s wildlife, except the few which have adapted to salt water, like the 3 species of flamingos that come there in thousands. There are also another 31 species of birds on the lake, including the rare Chilean Flamingo and the Andean Condor. As you can see, the highlands of Bolivia are a world of extreme and wonder.
Coroico, Las Yungas

Although there are many desolate places in Bolivia, there are also lush green valleys and tropical rain forests, where life is abundant and food and fresh water are plentiful. These are Bolivia’s lowlands. To get to the lowlands you must travel through the valleys of the Yungas.  Laced with inaccessible slopes and cliffs and crumbling mountain passes, travel to the Yungas can be dangerous and challenging.  Rainfall is heavy in Las Yungas, making the land among the most fertile in Bolivia, however poor transport and steep mountains have hindered its agricultural development, which some would say is a blessing in disguise, as it has helped to maintain the area´s natural beauty. 

After descending past the tropical valleys you reach the lowland, (amazon basin) which is filled with rainforest, wetland and savanna, maintaining most of Bolivia’s wildlife.  Unfortunately, this includes our dear friend the mosquito! Alot of habitat has been destroyed by deforestation schemes, but luckily a large chunk of the lowland is now protected as a National Park. 

What has made the Bolivia we see today? What is the essential component that has made Bolivia’s mesmerizing scenery? - the Andes. The Andes makes the rivers of the amazon flow through the east of south America; they make the altiplano range from cold to dry; and they holds in place the border between the low diverse lowlands, and the highland. How did the Andes come about? The Andes were formed due to the oceanic crust of the Nazca plate being forced against the continental crust, just off the western coast of the continent. The collision caused stress to build up, which in turn caused deformation and uplift, which formed fold mountains (the Andes). The denser oceanic crust was then forced under the continental crust. This process generated magma, which rose towards the surface and formed volcanoes, which in turn contributed to building up the andes.  

The andes remain the heart of Bolivian and South American geography, without which Bolivian georgaphy would be very different from what it is today.

Written by Archie Burney
Edited by Sarah Cassidy 

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