Mystery of Death Valley’s moving rocks solved

Trails left by rocks in a shallow lake in Death Valley’s Racetrack Playa. A solution to the longstanding mystery of why rocks move erratically across an isolated patch of California’s Death Valley finally emerged when researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography published a study showing the driving force was sheets of wind-driven ice.

DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK, Calif. (AP) — For years scientists have theorized about how large rocks — some weighing hundreds of pounds — zigzag across Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, leaving long trails etched in the earth.

Now two researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, have photographed these “sailing rocks” being blown by light winds across the former lake bed.

Cousins Richard Norris and James Norris said the movement is made possible when ice sheets that form after rare overnight rains melt in the rising sun, making the hard ground muddy and slick. On Dec. 20, 2013, the cousins catalogued 60 rocks moving across the playa’s pancake-flat surface.

“Observed rock movement occurred on sunny, clear days, following nights of sub-freezing temperatures,” they wrote in a report published Wednesday in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE. The conclusion proves theories that have been floated since geologists began studying the moving rocks in the 1940s.

The phenomenon doesn’t happen often because it rarely rains in the notoriously hot and dry desert valley. The rocks move about 15 feet per minute, according to the report. Richard Norris, 55, a paleobiologist at Scripps, and James, 59, a research engineer, launched their “Slithering Stones Research Initiative” in 2011…

h/t RM