What causes stones to sail across the desert?
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What causes stones to sail across the desert?
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   For almost a century, Death Valley’s dancing stones have stunned visitors and baffled researchers. In spite of engraving trails longer than football fields into the cracked mud, no one had observed the rocks move by themselves. The trails indicate that these stones have rolled and zigzagged somewhat miraculously across the ground, in certain cases for as long as 820 feet (as in 250 meters).

Sailing stones

   These “sailing stones”, as they’ve been called, are really common on the Racetrack Playa (an exceedingly flat dried lake) that they make it appear like a timeworn racetrack, hence the nickname. 

   Many explanations have been suggested for the mass movements throughout the years, ranging from space aliens and magnetic fields to pranksters.
   Scientists have sought to figure out the baffling mystery of the sailing stones for decades. Certain researchers believed that dust devils might propel the stones, some of which weigh more than 300 kilograms (318 kg).
   Other researchers thought the strong winds that often blow across the huge lake bed could induce the stones to slide across the dried mud. These theories, and others that came along, were all disproved, leaving researches without an explanation. 

Sailing stones

   However, based on a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE on August 27, 2014, news articles reported the puzzle of the sailing stones solved when researchers spotted stone movement utilizing GPS and time-lapse photography. The team of scientists, conducted by James and Richard Norris, observed and documented stone movement on December 20, 2013 that involved over 60 stones, with some stones sliding up to 224 meters between December 2013 and January 2014. Stones move when large rafts of ice, a few millimeters thick, floating in a fleeting winter pond begin to break up during sunny days. These thin rafts of floating ice, frozen during some winters, are driven by light winds and shove stones up to 5 meters per minute.

Sailing stones

Interesting facts

  • The “sailing stones” phenomenon was first documented in 1915 when a prospector called Joseph Crook from Fallon, Nevada went to see the Racetrack Playa site.
  • On 30 May 2013, the daily newspaper LA Times reported that park officials were investigating the theft of some stones from the Death Valley National Park.


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Published by Claudia Barbu


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