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Death Valley's sailing stones mystery solved


Posted on Thursday, 28 August, 2014 | Comment icon 27 comments

One of Death Valley's mysterious sailing stones. Image Credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 Pirate Scott
A team of researchers has finally managed to explain how such large boulders can move all by themselves.
The phenomenon, which was discovered in the 1940s, pertains to the inexplicable movement of extremely heavy boulders across a dry lake bed situated in Death Valley National Park.

Nobody has ever seen the boulders move directly but long trails left behind them in the sand seem to suggest that they have somehow traversed significant distances all by themselves. Some of the rocks that have shifted even weigh upwards of 320kg.

In an effort to solve the mystery once and for all a team of scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography visited the site in 2011 and set up a high-resolution weather station and 15 rocks fitted with GPS devices to measure even the slightest movements with impeccable accuracy.

It would take a further two years for anything to happen, but eventually during a visit to the site in December 2013 the team discovered that the area had been submerged in 3 inches of water.

As it turned out the movement of the rocks occurs under a very specific set of circumstances that requires there to be just enough water to cover the ground but not enough to submerge the rocks. The actual movement occurs due to a combination of strong winds, the freezing of the water during the night and the thawing of the ice by the hot sun during the day.

"It's possible that tourists have actually seen this happening without realising it," said co-author Jim Norris. "It is really tough to gauge that a rock is in motion if all the rocks around it are also moving."

Source: Scripps | Comments (27)

Tags: Death Valley, Sailing Stones

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #18 Posted by shrooma on 29 August, 2014, 8:03
now you know how the pyramids were built..... . (aliens with freeze guns.) .
Comment icon #19 Posted by Ashyne on 29 August, 2014, 9:47
now you know how the pyramids were built..... . (aliens with freeze guns.) . No. The pyramids were built when Godzilla needed to have a place big enough to lay its eggs.
Comment icon #20 Posted by taniwha on 29 August, 2014, 15:03
The ice drags them like a sail on a sailboat. Since the rocks don't really leave the ground they leave a trail. I think the wind pushes the ice which in turn push the rocks.
Comment icon #21 Posted by Shayde on 29 August, 2014, 17:37
Hang about... Wasn't the above theory about how the stones were moving made public a while back now? So it's not really a great breakthrough in knowing how this is done, but merely a rehash of the explantion. Or in other words, researchers have just not made a great new discovery, but just used an old one and possibly spent a bit of cash from grants doing so!
Comment icon #22 Posted by bigjonalien on 30 August, 2014, 2:09
old news!
Comment icon #23 Posted by SD455GTO on 30 August, 2014, 15:23
Yes, read about this a year or two ago.
Comment icon #24 Posted by DieChecker on 30 August, 2014, 15:43
A couple years ago was the Theory, this article is the Proof. Video made showing that it does happen.
Comment icon #25 Posted by Saitung on 30 August, 2014, 21:59
I could have sworn I saw a documentary on this a few years ago. Just checked Captain Kirk narrates the documentary as well. You did, this is VERY old news, LOL.
Comment icon #26 Posted by Codenwarra on 2 September, 2014, 10:54
Even if the Scripps team have produced a full explanation of this, this phenomenon will continue to be promoted by cheap media as totally unexplained. Then some will complain that science has not investigated and some will complain that money was spent on an investigation.
Comment icon #27 Posted by Capt Amerika on 10 September, 2014, 16:32
I remember this documentary. It showed how the stones were capable of moving something as large as a Pirate Ship across the desert. I think Johnny Depp was part of the cast.


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