Death Valley’s Sailing Stones a Mystery No More

For a century, experts were puzzled over the mystery of sailing stones across the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park in California.

Sailing stones are geographical occurrence where rocks move and carve long paths along an even valley floor without human or animal involvement. Rocks with jagged bases leave straight striated tracks while smooth ones tend to change directions. Sometimes the stones turn over leaving a different track.

sailing stones
The sailing stones of Racetrack Playa is a mystery no more (earthsky.org).

The phenomenon sparked examination in 1915 when Joseph Crook from Fallon, Nevada, visited the Racetrack Playa site. In 1948 geologists Jim McAllister and Allen Agnew mapped the tracks of the stones on the bedrock of the playa. Since then, researchers formulated theories as attempts to explain the mystery of the sailing stones.

Explanations for the curious phenomenon includes unknown magnetic field, strong winds and slippery algae. The theories are reasonable yet they are difficult to prove since there are no recorded movements of the stones.

However, experts recently documented the movement of the sailing stones in the Racetrack Playa with the help of high technology.

The research dubbed Slithering Stones Research Initiative was launched in 2011 led by Richard D. Norris, a biologist and his cousin James M. Norris, an engineer of Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist, joined the team two years after.

The researchers set up a weather station near Racetrack Playa. The group added 15 stones of their own with GPS tracking units attached. The GPS unit was placed in a cavity bored on top of the rock.

In December 2013, the researchers observed three inches deep water on the playa. Overnight, the water froze. The next day, the sun split the ice and the stones moved. The group caught it on video.

The experts explained that the motion of the sailing stones was caused by the very thin windowpane ice. When the ice melts, it may break up under light winds. The floating ice panels shove the rocks causing them to shift position and leave tracks in the floor of Death Valley desert.  Some rocks travelled as far as 200 feet and some move for few seconds to 16 minutes.

Norris mentioned during their announcements in August 2014 that some people who love mystery might be disappointed with the discovery.

“I know there are people who like the mystery of it and will probably be somewhat disappointed that we’ve solved it,” Norris said. “It’s a fascinating process, and in many ways I hope that there’s more to be discovered. Never say never.”

 

Source:  Live Science   Earth Sky

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