Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 83.djvu/213

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THE

POPULAR SCIENCE

MONTHLY



SEPTEMBER, 1913



THE NITRATE FIELDS OF CHILE
By Dr. WALTER S. TOWER
DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY, UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO

THE importance of Chilean nitrate depends on a curious whim of nature. Nitrogen is needed by all plants and animals, and though the atmosphere is nearly four-fifths nitrogen, few plants and no animals can draw directly on that universal supply. Animals secure their nitrogen through the medium of plants, and most plants must get it from the soil. Some cultivated crops rapidly use up the soil nitrogen and in such cases the easiest way to maintain productivity is by applying fertilizers. Nitrogenous fertilizers once were made largely from guano, fish scrap, slaughter-house refuse, etc., but their manufacture now depends mainly on natural nitrates. These occur in many parts of the world, but they have been found in large amounts only in the northern provinces of Chile.

For Chile itself no other thing has been more important than nitrate in affecting national progress. By some, nitrate has been regarded as a curse; by others, as a national blessing; and spirited arguments over its political aspects may be heard in-all parts of Chile, for the question is one of those which time does not settle. Nitrate has led to costly wars which established the prestige of Chile as the leading nation on the west coast of South America. It has lured tens of thousands of people into dreary deserts, and caused busy ports to develop where harbors are such only in name. It has created a great commerce for the country, made fortunes for the people, and provided great revenues for the nation to spend for army, navy and the general welfare. But along with these things, it has turned men and money from more stable forms of industry, and laid the country open to criticism, perhaps unjustly, for its extravagance.

Chile saltpeter, nitrate, or salitre as it is called, is when pure a glistening