Sailing stone tracks. Photo via PLOS ONE.

You are watching: Death valley rocks move by themselves

How could rocks – moved by some unseen force – slide across the ground, leave behind a trail? at Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed at fatality Valley nationwide Park in California, it to be a long-standing an enig that was finally cracked in 2014 by 2 cousins. They discovered that the rocks were nudged right into motion by melting panels of thin floating ice, propelled by light winds, in winter.

The sailing stones, or slide stones, that Racetrack Playa have actually been observed and also studied since the early 1900s. The was long thought that solid winds pushed the stones. An ext fanciful theories affiliated magnetic fields. And also as is the situation in any good mystery, room aliens to be implicated.

In respectable 2014, a team of (very patient) researcher aided through the Scripps college of Oceanography, NASA and others announced they had actually solved the mystery. In a statement, Richard D. Norris and also his cousin James M. Norris said that the absent movements developed during a rare mix of conditions in winter. There had actually to be a shallow class of water in the dry lake bed and nighttime temperatures cold sufficient for the formation of a slim layer the ice. On clear days, melting brought about the ice to break into big floating panels that, thrust by irradiate winds, pushed versus the rocks to relocate them, leaving monitor on the desert floor. The editor- and peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE released their study.

The video above – from the Slithering Stones research study Initiative – reflects a cruising or slide or slithering rock of fatality Valley’s Racetrack Playa in motion. Watch it? It’s the big rock in the foreground.

The 2 cousins introduced their investigation of cruising stones in 2011. That’s as soon as they established what they dubbed the Slithering Stones research study Initiative. They developed a weather station near Racetrack Playa and added 15 that their very own stones come the playa. The included stones had gps tracking units attached.

One that the GPS-instrumented rocks and its track across Racetrack Playa. The gps unit, v its battery pack, was placed in a cavity bored into the top of the rock. Photo via PLOS ONE.

Then, lock watched. Top top December 4 and also December 20, 2013, their setup – which supplied time-lapse photography – captured on camera rocks the were sliding across the playa at as much as 15 feet (3-5 meters) per minute. Castle saw numerous other instances of sailing stones as well, coming to be the very first people in the world to check out the stones in motion.

In the statement, Richard Norris said,

Science sometimes has actually an facet of luck. We intended to wait 5 or ten year without noþeles moving, however only 2 years into the project, we just happened come be over there at the best time to check out it take place in person.

They explained what they witnessed in your PLOS ONE paper:

The biggest observed rock movement involved >60 rocks top top December 20, 2013, and also some instrumented rocks moved up to 224 meters in between December 2013 and January 2014 in multiple relocate events.

They claimed in their record that watching the stones move permitted them to view the cause:

In contrast with ahead hypotheses of an effective winds or thick ice cream floating rocks off the playa surface, the process of rock activity that we have observed occurs as soon as the thin, 3- to 6-millimeter ‘windowpane’ ice sheet covering the playa pool starts to melt in so late morning sun and also breaks increase under light winds that ~4–5 meters/second .

Floating ice panels tens of meter in size push multiple rocks at low speeds that 2–5 meters/minute <.2 mph or less> follow me trajectories established by the direction and also velocity the the wind and that the the water flowing under the ice.

We very first heard of fatality Valley’s sliding stones indigenous an facebook friend, chris Tinker. He recorded this picture of sliding stone at Racetrack Playa and also shared it v us. Thanks, Chris!

According come Wikipedia, these sailing stones room slabs that dolomite and syenite ranging from a couple of hundred grams to thousands of kilograms.

Racetrack Playa stones only relocate once every two or 3 years and also most tracks critical for 3 or four years. Stones through rough bottom leave directly striated monitor while those through smooth bottom wander.

Nice to know what causes them come move! If you have time (six minutes), examine out the video clip below, which attributes the Norris cousins telling their story.

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Bottom line: The mystery of the cruising stones the Racetrack Playa in fatality Valley was addressed in 2014. Scientists uncovered that the rocks were thrust by thin floating panels of ice thrust by irradiate winds.