Not much moves in California’s Death Valley, a seared landscape of sand dunes and dry mud subjected to daily extremes of heat and cold. But strange things are stirring in a lake bed called the Racetrack. Rocks that tumble to the valley floor have a habit of hiking across the cracked ground, some as far as 1,500 feet (457 m),leaving crooked trails during their travels. Stranger still, no one has actually witnessed the so-called sailing stones in motion. Scientists are certain what’s animating these inanimate objects. Studies have ruled out earthquakes and gravity (some rocks travel uphill). One theory holds that little donuts of ice form around the stones in the winter, making them float across the flat ground. Other scientists suspect that gusting wind moves the rocks after rains slicken the lake bed. Lorenz’s research team calculated that under certain winter conditions in Death Valley, enough water and ice could form to float the rocks across the muddy bottom of Racetrack Playa in a light breeze, leaving a trail in the mud as the rocks moved.
Coordinates of Death Valley:36.6813N 117.5627W
Located in a remote area of California’s Death Valley National Park, the heavy stones appear to move across the dried lake bed known as Racetrack Playa, leaving a trail behind them in the cracked mud.
The rocks’ apparent movement has been blamed on everything from space aliens and magnetic fields to pranksters. But no one has actually seen the rocks move, which only adds to the mystery.
Scientists have tried to solve the puzzle of the sailing stones for decades. Some researchers thought that dust devils might move the rocks, some of which weigh as much as 700 lbs. (318 kilograms).
Other researchers believed the strong winds that frequently whip across the vast lake bed could cause the rocks to slide across the ground. These and other theories were eventually disproved, leaving scientists without an explanation.
From outer space to Death Valley
In 2006, Ralph Lorenz, a NASA scientist investigating weather conditions on other planets, took an interest in Death Valley. Lorenz was particularly keen on comparing the meteorological conditions of Death Valley to those near Ontario Lacus, a vast hydrocarbon lake on Titan, a moon of Saturn.
But while investigating Death Valley, he became intrigued by the enigmatic sailing stones of Racetrack Playa.
Lorenz developed a kitchen-table model using an ordinary Tupperware container — to show how the rocks might glide across the surface of the lake bed.
“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. Lorenz devised his clever experiment by researching how the buoyancy of ice can cause large rocks, when encased in ice, to move by floating along tidal beaches in the Arctic Ocean.
Nonetheless, some visitors to Death Valley seem to prefer more occult explanations for the sailing stones.
“People always ask, ‘What do you think causes them to move?’ But if you try to explain, they don’t always want to hear the answers,” van Valkenburg said. “People like a mystery they like an unanswered question.”
How Death Valley so dangerous?
Death Valley is a land of beautiful yet dangerous extremes. … Death Valley can be dangerously cold during the winter months. Storms in the mountains can produce sudden flooding on the floor of the Valley. The air temperature during the summer has been as high as fifty-seven degrees Celsius.
Not only can summertime temps reach dangerous highs, but nights can be cold enough to induce hypothermia. Many people choose to drive through Death Valley. However, the heat, which can approach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, can cause trouble for the car and, after overheating, trouble for its passengers.