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Scientists Solve Mystery of 'Sailing Rocks'

Image: Scientists Solve Mystery of 'Sailing Rocks' A "sailing rock" at Death Valley National Park. (Dan Carr/Barcroft Media/Landov)

By John Blosser   |   Thursday, 28 Aug 2014 11:15 AM

A scientific enigma which has baffled scientists for over a century bit the dust recently in the barren, windswept Racetrack Playa dry lake bed in Death Valley National Park — the mystery of the "sailing rocks."

The rocks, some weighing up to 700 pounds, eerily move, seemingly on their own, leaving a series of clear, wavering lines in their wake, displaying the direction of their motion, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Their eerie motion has been attributed to everything from earthquakes to ice floes to UFOs, but until scientist cousins Richard Norris, 55, a paleobiologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and James Norris, 59, a research engineer, used GPS technology to study the weird actions of the "slithering stones" on Dec. 21, and caught a lucky break, no one knew the cause.

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As the sun heated up the frozen lake bed and ice began to crack and shift, Richard Norris yelled, according to the Times, "My god, Jim, it's happening!'

"There was this crackling sound or popping sound all over the playa," Norris told  National Geographic. "One moment it was quiet, and the next moment it was popping everywhere as the ice began to break up, and I said to my cousin, 'This is it! We’re actually seeing this whole thing happen!'"

Breaking, melting overnight ice formed "sails" against the rocks which, pushed by the wind, caused the scientists' GPS-implanted stones to inch along the briefly mud-slick surface, creating the snaky trails, the cousins wrote in the scientific journal PLOS ONE.

"Observed rock movement occurred on sunny, clear days, following nights of sub-freezing temperatures. 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," they wrote in PLOS ONE.

The event is extremely rare and requires a complex and unique mix of temperature, water and wind.

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"I’m amazed by the irony of it all," James Norris told the Times. "In a place where rainfall averages two inches a year, rocks are being shoved around by mechanisms typically seen in arctic climes.

"And the movement is incredibly slow. These rocks clock in at about 15 feet per minute.
"There was a side of me that was wistful, because the mystery was no more."

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