Death Valley ‘Sliding Rocks’ Mystery Resolved

By: Christopher C. Burt , 7:21 PM GMT on August 29, 2014

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Death Valley ‘Sliding Rocks’ Mystery Resolved

An article published in the science journal PLOS ONE on August 27th by scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has finally put to rest the mystery of the ‘sliding’ rocks of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley.



One of the many rocks photographed that seemed to have slid across Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. The phenomenon was first noticed in the 1940s. Many hypotheses have been made as to the cause of the phenomenon, including that perhaps it is an elaborate hoax. Racetrack Playa is located in the northwestern portion of Death Valley National Park and rests at an elevation of 3,708’ (1,130 m). Photo by Meera Dolasia and taken in 2009.

For years people have been mystified by the apparent movement of rocks, some weighing over 100 pounds, over hundreds of feet along the flat surface of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley leaving long tracks etched in the ground as they move. Richard D. Norris and his cousin James M. Norris launched an investigation into the mystery beginning in 2011 with their ‘Slithering Stones Research Initiative’ sponsored by NASA and Scripps among others. They established a weather station in the area near the playa (with permission from the Death Valley National Park Service, not an easy accomplishment!) and placed 15 stones attached with GPS tracking units in the vicinity of the existing ‘sliding stones’ that first triggered the mystery.



Location of weather station in Death Valley overlooking the GPS-instrumented rock zone on Racetrack Playa. Map from PLOS ONE article.



One of the GPS-instrumented rocks and its track across the playa. The GPS unit, with its battery pack, was placed in a cavity bored into the top of the rock. Photo from PLOS ONE article.

Using time-lapse photography they caught on camera the rocks sliding across the playa at the surprisingly fast pace of up to 15 feet (3-5 meters) per minute on December 4th and December 20th, 2013 as well as other occasions. In all cases rainfall preceded the events, which froze just beneath the playa surface. During the mornings after the rainfalls and freeze-up they relate what happened:

” Steady light winds and morning sun caused floating ice to break-up near mid day, accompanied by widespread popping sounds from fragmenting ice panels. Ice initially broke into floating panels tens of meters in size that became increasingly fragmented and separated by open rippled water as melting continued. Floating ice sheets driven by wind stress and flowing water, pushed rocks resting on the playa surface, in some cases moving >60 rocks in a single event...Two rocks recorded movements on December 4; one trail was 65.6 m long (stone mass 16.6 kg) and the other of 64.1 m (stone mass 8.2 kg). Both movements lasted 16 minutes starting at 11:05 am local time. These rocks were originally located ~153 meters apart, and began motion within 6 seconds of each other. Both rocks initially reached velocities of 5–6 m/minute that fell to 3–4 m/minute by 6 minutes into the move event. The December 20 event is recorded by one rock (stone mass 15.4 kg) with a 39.1 m movement over 12.3 minutes starting at 11:37 am. The rock initially achieved a velocity of 2–3 m/minute, then nearly stopped 4 minutes into the move, resumed a minute later, and traveled 5 m/minute to the end of the move event.”



Graphic of weather conditions measured at the weather station established just above the play for the period of November 19, 2013-January 9, 2014. At the top of the graph are the dates of major rock movements. From PLOS ONE article.



An overview photo (from the ‘Source Hill’ shown in the map earlier) displaying the dozens of GPS-instrumented rocks that slid across the playa on December 20, 2013. Photo from PLOS ONE article.

Although this hypothesis has been made before (along with many others) this is the first time peer-reviewed proof of the phenomenon and what causes it has been confirmed by scientific investigation.

The entire article in PLOS ONE (a fascinating read) may be found here.

REFERENCE: ‘Sliding Rocks on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park: First Observation of Rocks in Motion’ by Richard D. Norris, James M. Norris, Ralph D. Lorenz, Jib Ray, Brian Jackson, PLOS ONE, August 27, 2014.

Christopher C. Burt
Weather Historian

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29. WunderAlertBot (Admin)
8:08 PM GMT on September 02, 2014
weatherhistorian has created a new entry.
28. Radiantequine
8:07 PM GMT on September 02, 2014
CC45 and Others - although Mr. Burt included this article on the Blog ~ Reading articles @ PLOS ONE is a greatway to feed your head ~ Quite diverse
Member Since: August 11, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
27. Mitchellive
7:09 PM GMT on September 02, 2014
Quoting 23. woodcock:

Fantastic! Now .... about the anvil .... Wile E. Coyote is able to walk on a high wire with the intention of dropping his anvil on Road Runner. How is this anvil wire walking accomplished? Get a man on this mystery, I'd like it solved by nightfall.


While it is good that a peer reviewed investigation has solved this "mystery", It is almost essential that we have unexplained phenomenon to keep some mystery in our world. If everything were scientifically proven there would be no more use for scientific investigations. We do not know everything as some may think. For instance, the Wile E. Coyote anvil will likely remain unexplained forever. I would like to see a scientist try to prove that Mr. Coyote's tight rope anvil could or could not be accomplished. Also, Wile E. had Acme backing him, who needs NASA and Scripps? They are relative newcomers compared to Acme!
Member Since: August 25, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
26. heyjoewtwxt
6:48 PM GMT on September 02, 2014
Cool. I also find it interesting that an oceanographic institute was involved in solving this terrestrial mystery!
Member Since: May 20, 2003 Posts: 0 Comments: 2
25. ferdyanne
12:29 AM GMT on September 02, 2014
We first encountered the Sliding Rocks during our first trip to Death Valley in 1956. Since then we have returned 8 times over the years, Each subsequent trip brings back the memory of clean, crystal clear air and vistas with a jolt. While the Valley is still (and always will be) one of the most fascinating places on earth, and worth the journey (we live in Maryland), the impact of human-made environmental changes, over our 58 years of observation, are evident throughout the Valley. Yet, it remains one of our favorite places on earth.
Thank you for solving the "mystery" of the slithering rocks..........that's just what we thought!.......although we did consider it to be the work of the spirits in the Devils Golf Course
Anna and Harry Albert, Chesapeake City, Maryland
Member Since: September 2, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
24. vis0
12:16 AM GMT on September 02, 2014
Thank yous to  Christopher C. Burt & others whom ask questions and post ideas, it makes ones aura brighter & cleaner when we share ideas & listen.
Member Since: December 15, 2006 Posts: 249 Comments: 465
23. woodcock
6:29 PM GMT on September 01, 2014
Fantastic! Now .... about the anvil .... Wile E. Coyote is able to walk on a high wire with the intention of dropping his anvil on Road Runner. How is this anvil wire walking accomplished? Get a man on this mystery, I'd like it solved by nightfall.
Member Since: July 18, 2003 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
22. CC45
7:16 AM GMT on September 01, 2014
Very cool blog post, I love this kind of thing and have been curious about these rocks. I always thought the only thing that made sense was wind, ice or water. Science is awesome. Thanks Mr. Burt!
Member Since: September 24, 2005 Posts: 0 Comments: 40
21. Snowfire
3:05 AM GMT on September 01, 2014
I have thought for some time that this explanation was the most likely; nothing else made any sense. Nice to see it confirmed.
Member Since: June 29, 2005 Posts: 24 Comments: 309
20. Pallis1
3:02 AM GMT on September 01, 2014
Quoting 7. Neapolitan:



As the author of some very popular books, perhaps Mr. Burt erred in assuming his blog audience was capable of reading at an advanced level. I'm certain, however, if you ask him kindly that he might be willing to rewrite a beginners' version of this article just for those with a sub-par literacy skillset. You know, with one-syllable words and lots of colorful cartoons. It never hurts to try, you know? ;-)

P.S. -- verbage --> "verbiage"
Maybe he was drinking absinth like me, and likes to play with spelling. Verbage = Garbage. Besides our glaring differences, we are still the only ones truly watching the planet constantly, you know.
Member Since: June 26, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 279
19. Pallis1
2:51 AM GMT on September 01, 2014
Quoting 15. hydrus:

Thank you Mr. Burt....I had a feeling frost may have played a role. Deserts go below freezing many times throughout the year., and even a little frozen moisture ( fog, dew, mist, or rain ) can make almost any surface slick. I have literally pushed a car in a parking lot with one arm.
It was during my travels that I noticed the weather warning; FREEZING FOG. I am from S.W. Florida, so what in the heck is that, "I said to myself." Bikers try to ride fast in it for a free shave! I spent two years in the Ouachita Mountains, and if you go up, or down hill you could have a completely different experience. I am wondering why there is not a true time lapse video for this phenomenon? San Diego weather bloggers should travel out there to make the video.
Member Since: June 26, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 279
18. mysticloud
1:47 AM GMT on September 01, 2014
Interesting
Member Since: June 16, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 7
17. Dakster
8:01 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
Thanks for the post - glad the mystery is solved.
Member Since: March 10, 2006 Posts: 0 Comments: 10545
16. Floatinground
7:23 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
For you old timers, I remember seeing this place on a TV travelog called 'Wanderlust' hosted by Bill Burrid. There was a rather large boulder that from the trail it left, looked like it had been tumbling across the playa and where it changed direction the trail was more like where a corner of the stone had hit the mud. (?)
Also on a more recent program, a girl first researching this place said that after a rain storm the lake dries out 3 inches
higher on one side than the other. How could this be?
Member Since: July 10, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
15. hydrus
5:00 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
Thank you Mr. Burt....I had a feeling frost may have played a role. Deserts go below freezing many times throughout the year., and even a little frozen moisture ( fog, dew, mist, or rain ) can make almost any surface slick. I have literally pushed a car in a parking lot with one arm.
Member Since: September 27, 2007 Posts: 1 Comments: 21507
14. Doppler22
4:47 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
Very interesting. Thank you for the informational post!
Member Since: February 13, 2012 Posts: 11 Comments: 3783
13. midgulfmom
4:46 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
So cool! Never heard ot this, thanks for posting!
Member Since: July 9, 2005 Posts: 2 Comments: 1164
12. tgliang
3:16 PM GMT on August 31, 2014
Immediately, I was thinking ... could the trails on mars be formed by the same or similar causes?
Member Since: March 22, 2010 Posts: 0 Comments: 0
11. Floatinground
6:49 PM GMT on August 30, 2014
You know, that's what I always thought it was! (Ha, ha!)
The only problem with it now is the girls will say the 'Romance' has been taken away from it.
Member Since: July 10, 2012 Posts: 0 Comments: 1
10. Neapolitan
2:19 PM GMT on August 30, 2014
Quoting 8. weatherhistorian:

Thanks Neapolitan and others so far as your comments concerning 'Lokihound''s comment (the first comment). Actually, he was quite correct in his critique. I posted the blog quickly this afternoon since I had an appointment to meet and failed to do more than a quick spell check of the blog before posting. After my appointment, and reading his comment, I saw clearly that my writing was less than acceptable and, hence, corrected some obviously confusing sentences. So thanks to Lokihound for pointing this out.




I wasn't so bothered by the OPs brilliant and insightful literary criticism as I was by the Neanderthal way s/he expressed it. Meh. I suppose some were raised in a land where people communicate only through gestures and angry hoots and grunts. That would explain a lot... ;-)
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13580
9. aquak9
1:32 PM GMT on August 30, 2014
thank you for posting this.
Member Since: August 13, 2005 Posts: 169 Comments: 26126
8. Christopher C. Burt , Weather Historian
1:25 AM GMT on August 30, 2014
Thanks Neapolitan and others so far as your comments concerning 'Lokihound''s comment (the first comment). Actually, he was quite correct in his critique. I posted the blog quickly this afternoon since I had an appointment to meet and failed to do more than a quick spell check of the blog before posting. After my appointment, and reading his comment, I saw clearly that my writing was less than acceptable and, hence, corrected some obviously confusing sentences. So thanks to Lokihound for pointing this out.

Quoting 7. Neapolitan:



As the author of some very popular books, perhaps Mr. Burt erred in assuming his blog audience was capable of reading at an advanced level. I'm certain, however, if you ask him kindly that he might be willing to rewrite a beginners' version of this article just for those with a sub-par literacy skillset. You know, with one-syllable words and lots of colorful cartoons. It never hurts to try, you know? ;-)

P.S. -- verbage --> "verbiage"
Member Since: February 15, 2006 Posts: 308 Comments: 290
7. Neapolitan
11:06 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
Quoting 1. lokihound:

What? This post doesn't say anything intelligible about how this occurs! The original article is pretty clear but what's posted is some of the most convoluted verbage I've ever seen.


As the author of some very popular books, perhaps Mr. Burt erred in assuming his blog audience was capable of reading at an advanced level. I'm certain, however, if you ask him kindly that he might be willing to rewrite a beginners' version of this article just for those with a sub-par literacy skillset. You know, with one-syllable words and lots of colorful cartoons. It never hurts to try, you know? ;-)

P.S. -- verbage --> "verbiage"
Member Since: November 8, 2009 Posts: 4 Comments: 13580
6. pcola57
10:31 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
Thank you Chris..
I always wondered how that happened..
Very interesting..
Member Since: August 13, 2009 Posts: 13 Comments: 6856
5. BruceVoigt
9:31 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
A little common sense will have most considering that if said boulder were placed on Black Ice, wind could move it. But -- these meandering boulders are not placed on ice and are stationary. So how can ice form between the boulder (glacier) and ground! (easy)

ALL MATTER PRODUCES OXYGEN!
EXAMPLE:
You could say, for instance, how in heck could a piece of wood, no longer a live tree, produce oxygen?

The liquid ingredient of water has vacated your two by four. The cells of this dead piece of wood still contain an active water cell nucleus with its orbiting nuclei. This cell nucleus contains the complete make-up of the tree and constantly reproduces itself as nuclei (aura). The aura of this piece of two by four, with cold temperature, produces water as dew.

And yes by golly with black ice and a bit of wind those huge boulders easily meander about the desert of Death Valley.
Member Since: February 16, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 44
4. BruceVoigt
9:21 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
11th May 2011 - 03:46 AM
Just watched Weird or What on History Television trying to solve the mystery of the Sailing Stones of Death Valley.
They did not solve this mystery but I have.

Dew is a product of the earth, tiss what gives life to plants and animals of the "dry" desert or you could say-- Dew is baby atmosphere or baby rain, or baby snow or baby fog or baby----

DEW (water) originates from the earth and its surface and not from the atmosphere as does fog, rain, snow etc.

Black ice is a product of DEW not Atmosphere.

In a nut shell --
Black ice, is of an immature earth force. (dew)
Frost, is of a mature earth force. (atmosphere)

Could it be as simple as the likes of black ice to be the reason of Avalanche?

An accumulation of mature frost or snow would be binding and would not easily slide on it's self so I propose that for whatever reason a layer of frozen dew or black ice is laid down and it's this layer that the avalanche people are finding in their snow blocks.

My goodness could it be this frozen dew that moves glaciers or the reason for mud or rock slides (the likes of Franks Slide)!

And yes by golly with black ice and a bit of wind those huge boulders easily meander about the desert of Death Valley.

In a non related quest that included our four seasons, experiments showed me that black ice is a product of dew not atmosphere. Although they are both slippery most of us have experienced the difference.

Summer has dew and none due mornings.
Winter has black ice or frost mornings.

Dew is earths natural way of supplying water to life in deserts or you could say.
Dew is produced by the earth and species evolve because of this phenomenon.

For me and mine, discoveries have been fantastic but it will take another four seasons to complete the science. For instance, it was discovered that the aura or atmosphere of a water cell draws into it's nucleus the aura of what is on or close to. I must be more careful in how I collect dew.

As it is with cold fusion I hope to discover why dew dews what and when it wants.
Member Since: February 16, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 44
3. oregonbirdofprey
8:59 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
RE: #1...Floating ice sheets driven by wind stress and flowing water, pushed rocks resting on the playa surface, in some cases moving >60 rocks in a single event...

Really, what part of the "convoluted verbage" don't you understand?
Member Since: September 26, 2008 Posts: 1 Comments: 955
2. ChateauChalon
8:41 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
Thank you, I just purchased your book about extreme weather I already read through, where this phenomenon was yet unsolved.
Member Since: July 19, 2013 Posts: 0 Comments: 20
1. lokihound
8:35 PM GMT on August 29, 2014
What? This post doesn't say anything intelligible about how this occurs! The original article is pretty clear but what's posted is some of the most convoluted verbage I've ever seen.
Member Since: August 29, 2014 Posts: 0 Comments: 0

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About weatherhistorian

Christopher C. Burt is the author of 'Extreme Weather; A Guide and Record Book'. He studied meteorology at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison.