August 27, 2014
In the middle of Death Valley, there is an incredibly dry lakebed called Racetrack Playa, and it is there that one of the strangest natural phenomena occurs. According to locals and experts alike, it the dead of night, the hundred-pound stones that can be found scattered about the ground mysteriously shift hundreds of feet.
So what's moving these massive rocks? A team from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography believe they finally have the answer.
A new study recently published in the journal PLOS One details how a team led by Scripps paleobiologist Richard Norris decided to closely observe the strange phenomenon called "sailing stones" through data analysis, fitting stones in the Racetrack Playa with motion activated GPS units and monitoring the region with a high-resolution weather station.
Ralph Lorenz at Johns Hopkins University, one of the paper's authors, admitted in a recent release that he assumed that this would be a pretty long waiting game in "the most boring experiment ever."
Past observation of the "sailing stones" phenomenon has showed that some stones don't move for decades at a time, and no one scientist had ever witnessed it in person. That's what the researcher expected here.
However sometimes science has what researcher Richard Norris calls "an element of luck."
"We expected to wait five or ten years without anything moving," he explained. "But only two years into the project, we just happened to be there at the right time to see it happen in person."
According to the study, in December 2013, Norris and his colleagues found that the traditionally dry lakebed was coated in a thin layer of ice. Soon after it began to melt and break up into large floating panes of ice, which stones could literally sail across the temporarily muddy lakebed on with the help of a little wind.
Then, characteristic to Death Valley, the ice and water is gone just as quickly as it got there, leaving anyone who didn't witness the sailing for themselves scratching their heads.
The team recorded five events in all which took place over the course of two-and-a-half months. Still, Norris says even with the basic idea how this works solved, the team is still left with questions.
"So we have seen that even in Death Valley, famous for its heat, floating ice is a powerful force in rock motion," he said. "But we have not seen the really big boys move out there... Does that work the same way?"
To find out, you might have to head out to Racetrack Playa for yourself, and wait.