Scientists may have solved the mystery of Death Valley’s ‘sailing stones’

Research engineer James Norris captures the natural movement of rocks across Death Valley National Park in California, potentially solving a decades-long environmental mystery. (Video courtesy James Norris, with affiliation to SSRI)

There’s a barren lake bed in the Death Valley National Park in California defined by its many long serpentine tracks, etched into the landscape by massive stones that move somewhat miraculously across the mud.

It’s called Racetrack Playa — and for decades geologists have been chasing the “sailing stones” at play there. One of the first scientific studies, published in 1948, suggested the rock motion was driven by dust devils. Most recently, a couple of U.S. scientists hypothesized it was hurricane-force winds that were doing the deed. But it wasn’t until now that science has revealed a plausible explanation for how these stones leave their “racetrack” imprints through the playa: It takes a kind of perfect storm.


The south shore of Racetrack Playa. (Courtesy of PLOS-ONE)

The Racetrack Playa must first fill with water — deep enough to float massive sheets of ice, yet still shallow enough to leave the rocks exposed. Nighttime temperatures must then get cold enough to freeze the water, forming mammoth-size ice panes — thin enough to glide across the lake bed, yet thick enough to gain momentum and clear the stones in their way.

As the next day’s afternoon sun thaws the ice, these sheets break apart into chunks that, with any luck, a steady wind will propel across the playa pool. When the ice chunks hit the rocks — ranging from pebble to boulder-size pieces weighing up to 200 pounds – the stones are driven across the soft mud below, leaving behind their signature trails.


The findings explaining the process were published on Wednesday in the online science journal PLOS ONE.

“I’m amazed by the irony of it all,” James Norris, a research engineer, told the Los Angeles Times. “In a place where rainfall averages two inches a year, rocks are being shoved around by mechanisms typically seen in arctic climes.” He added that “the movement is incredibly slow. These rocks clock in at about 15 feet per minute.”

Richard Norris, 55, a paleobiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and James Norris, 59, are cousins and researchers on the study. The men embarked on their mission to solve the mystery in 2011.

With some help, they set up a weather station in the park. They inserted global positioning devices into rocks and planted them at the southern end of the playa where the stones begin their adventure. Then they waited.

“As one of the other researchers on this project said, ‘Probably the most boring experiment ever,’” James Norris said in a video about the experiment, according to Discovery Magazine.

Until it wasn’t.

GPS-instrumented rock with its rock trail.The GPS unit with its battery pack is inserted into a cavity bored into the top of the rock. The GPS continuously logs its position after a switch is triggered by the stone moving away from a magnet set in the playa. The surface of the playa is frozen in this image, but the ice had melted or was floating when the trail formed. (Mike Hartmann)
GPS-instrumented rock with its rock trail.The GPS unit with its battery pack is inserted into a cavity bored into the top of the rock. The GPS continuously logs its position after a switch is triggered by the stone moving away from a magnet set in the playa. The surface of the playa is frozen in this image, but the ice had melted or was floating when the trail formed. (Mike Hartmann)

A week before Christmas in 2013, the cousins returned to Death Valley to check on their rocks. That’s when they found all the elements needed to explain the phenomenon: a playa covered with ice, some afternoon sunshine and a light, steady wind.

“Suddenly, the whole process unfolded before our eyes,” Richard Norris told the L.A. Times.

They heard the ice crack. They saw the rocks begin to sail. James Norris grabbed a camera — and their photographs became the final piece needed to help solve the decades-long puzzle.

“The largest observed rock movement,” they wrote in their study, involved more than 60 rocks on Dec. 20, 2013, some of which moved up to 224 meters, or more than 700 feet, between December 2013 and January 2014 in “multiple move events.”

“There was a side of me that was wistful because the mystery was no more,” James Norris told the L.A. Times.

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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