Death Valley’s sailing stones caught on the move

Rock raceway controlled by ice and wind

sailing stones

ROCK SLIDE  Stones such as this one inscribe long trails as they slide across Death Valley. Scientists have found that ice and wind play a role in the rocks’ mysterious movements.

Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

For nearly a century Death Valley’s dancing rocks have amazed visitors and stumped scientists. Despite etching trails longer than football fields into the dried mud, no one had ever seen the stones move.

Last winter researchers employed GPS trackers and time-lapse photography to monitor dozens of rocks ranging from petite pebbles to hefty boulders. On December 20, they caught more than 60 stones sliding in unison at slothlike speeds of 2 to 5 meters per minute. The team describes the event August 27 in PLOS ONE.

Numerous explanations have been proposed for the mass movements over the years, ranging from earthquakes to aliens. Tagging the rocks revealed that ice and wind power the locomotion. During some winters, rainwater pools in the normally bone-dry lakebed and freezes into thin rafts of floating ice. As the wind blows against these rafts, the ice shoves against the rocks, forcing them to grind along the mud and leave behind the telltale tracks.

Watch The Racetrack Playa’s Sliding Rocks for a detailed explanation of the phenomenon.

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