Death Valley's Mysterious ‘Sailing Stones’ Explained

It might just be the world’s slowest game of Red Light, Green Light: Huge rocks in Death Valley National Park race across the mud flats—but only when nobody is looking. The sailing stones, as they’re called, mystified park visitors and scientists for decades. But one man believes he’s solved the puzzle.

The dry lakebed known as the Racetrack playa looks much like the rest of Death Valley—cracked and dry in the summer and frozen in winter. But nowhere else in the park will you find strange tracks trailing behind each big rock and boulder. It looks as though the stones have dragged themselves through the desert, or as though they have been dragged, by some great cosmic hand.

All summer, the stones are still. Through autumn, they don’t budge. Then winter roars in and creeps out. By spring, the stones have moved again.

The New Way Things Work David Macaulay Best Price: $1.81 Buy New $29.95 (as of 10:39 UTC - Details) Natural and supernatural theories have abounded: Unsurprisingly, many attributed the rocks’ stealthy movements to aliens. Some said wind was the culprit; others ice; others rain; still others, mystical energy fields. Some people even steal rocks from the park, hoping to harness their magical powers. 

Scientists have set up experiments in the playa since the 1940s, trying to understand what makes the sailing stones sail. But all the results have been inconclusive, and despite frequent checks, nobody has ever been able to catch the rocks in motion.

It took a space researcher to crack the case. Planetary scientist Ralph Lorenz was working with NASA, setting up miniature weather stations in Death Valley, when he first became interested in the stones. (Conditions in the park are so severe that it’s often used as an experimental stand-in for Mars.) Although his original work was focused on summer in the desert, Lorenz realized his instruments would work just as well for monitoring the playa’s rocks in the winter. Lorenz and his team pored over images of the stones’ trails, looking for some clue.

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