The Mystery of the Sailing Stones in Death Valley

Benjamin RadfordBy Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

California’s remote, beautiful, and foreboding Death Valley has held a mystery for almost a century: it has stones that seem to move on their own, when no one is looking. It happens at Racetrack Playa, a dry lakebed known for its “sailing stones.” This effect occurs at a few other places as well, though Death Valley is the most famous spot.

Heavy rocks like these seem to slide across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.

Heavy rocks like these seem to slide across the surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park.

In their book “Mysteries of the World: Unexplained Wonders and Mysterious Phenomena,” Herbert Genzmer and Ulrich Hellenbrand state that “the perfectly flat, dry ground is scoured and scraped with paths that suggest these boulders are being moved along the ground… there is no indication of how this movement could have been brought about by outside forces, and no stone has ever been observed actually making its way across the ground.”

Not all of the stones in Death Valley move. Those that do only move every two to three years, and they don’t all move at the same time or in the same direction. In fact, some seem to have made abrupt 90-degree turns, judging from the tracks, which range from tens of feet to hundreds of feet long. Most of the stones are not huge boulders but instead range from about 6 to 18 inches (15 to 45 centimeters) in diameter.

Several theories have been proposed to explain this curious phenomenon, including some sort of localized, unknown magnetic effect. This theory has been discounted for a variety of reasons including that many of the stones do not contain significant amounts of magnetic elements such as iron, and that the stones should gradually assemble in one place — which they don’t. Some have suggested that the strong winds that blow through the area might move the rocks after the lakebed has become slick.

The most likely solution to the mystery involves a combination of wind, temperature and water. Although Racetrack Playa is a dry lakebed, it is not always dry; in fact, water collects on the surface after rainfall or when snow from surrounding peaks melts. Brian Dunning, a California researcher who discussed this mystery on his Skeptoid podcast, notes that when water is present and the temperature falls below freezing — as it sometimes does — a thin sheet of ice is created: “Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor… As the wind shifts and the flow ebbs, these ice floes drag the rocks across the slippery mud surface in zig-zagging paths, even moving heavy rocks and sometimes dragging some but washing past others nearby.”

NASA researcher Ralph Lorenz became intrigued by the enigmatic stones while studying Death Valley weather conditions. He developed a tabletop experiment to show how the rocks might glide across the surface of the lakebed.

Ralph Lorenz’s home experiment

Ralph Lorenz’s home experiment

“I took a small rock and put it in a piece of Tupperware, and filled it with water so there was an inch of water with a bit of the rock sticking out,” Lorenz told Smithsonian.com.

After putting the container in the freezer, Lorenz ended up with a small slab of ice with a rock embedded in it. By placing the ice-bound rock in a large tray of water with sand at the bottom, all he had to do was gently blow on the rock to get it to move across the water. And as the ice-embedded rock moved, it scraped a trail in the sand at the tray’s bottom.

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Video via inFact with Brian Dunning (YouTube)

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