Finally! Secret of Death Valley’s ‘Sailing Stones’ Is Revealed

By Carl Engelking | August 27, 2014 1:00 pm

sailing stones

The Racetrack Playa — a barren lakebed in Death Valley National Park — is home to one of the world’s natural wonders: “sailing stones” that mysteriously meander across the dried mud, leaving tracks in their wake. Since the 1940s, these rocks have fueled wonder and speculation because no one had seen them in action — until now.

A team of U.S. scientists recorded the first observation of these boulders in motion, using GPS monitors and time-lapse photography. By meticulously tracking weather data, scientists also explained how these rocks slog across the playa. What was one of the world’s natural wonders now appears to be the perfect combination of rain, wind, ice and sun.

Unraveling a Mystery

Years ago, researchers traveled to the Racetrack Playa with plenty of instruments in tow. They first installed a weather station and several time-lapse cameras around the playa. They also placed 15 GPS-embedded limestone rocks of various sizes throughout the playa. Then, it was time to wait.

“As one of the other researchers on this project said, ‘Probably the most boring experiment ever,’” study co-author Jim Norris said in a video about the experiment.

However, things got interesting in November 2013. In late November, significant amounts of rain and snow created a small pond in the south end of the playa. When December came, the GPS-embedded rocks started moving, with the heaviest weighing in at 35 pounds. The rocks reached blazing speeds of 9-16 feet per minute. Most importantly, the race was caught on camera.

So what caused the rocks to drag themselves across the playa?

Getting the Green Light

Past theories attributed the rocks’ movements to high winds, liquid water, or ice. But scientists discovered it’s a careful balance of all these factors.

When the small pond formed in the southern portion of the playa, it cyclically froze at night and thawed under the midday sun. When the sun warmed the pond, thin layers of surface ice started breaking apart into massive floating sheets tens of meters in size. Although the ice sheets were large, they were still just a few millimeters thick.

But the freezing and thawing wasn’t enough on its own. A steady, light wind of about 7-10 miles per hour was also needed, but before the ice had completely melted. This wind, timed with the midday melt, pushed massive panes of ice into the stones. When the ice accumulated behind the stones, it generated enough force to set the stones into motion. And rather than floating or rolling, the rocks bulldozed their way across the mud, leaving behind their signature tracks. Researchers published their findings Tuesday in the journal PLoS ONE.

The rocks won’t move if there’s too much water or ice, too much sun, or not enough wind. Everything must act in perfect harmony for the races to ensue. So, in addition to their “sailing stones” moniker, we suggest a new name for these fascinating boulders: the Goldilocks Rocks.


Photo credit: Anatoliy Lukich/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: earth science, geology
  • SebZz Gii

    Doesn’t prove anything sadly :-/
    *they gonna say that someone with some cord attached to the rock… Blablabla

    • Darwin

      Do you mean to say that “the video” in the article doesn’t prove anything? I do agree. Obviously the video is time lapse. Anyone could move the rock in between shots; no cord needed. The hypothesis, however, does have merit in its explanation. Of course a whole lot more testing will need to go on before it is accepted as a theory.

  • reader

    Cool! Makes sense to me.

  • ReDQLulz

    Many of the same lunatic luddites who deny global warming and believe the pyramids were made by ‘space aliens’ ( in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary on both issues ) will NOT believe this simple, straightforward, ‘easily observable’ phenomenon. That is…until Faux News reports it and breaks the ‘internet irony meter.’

    • WhoIsJohnGalt

      And how long until the donkey party claims racism because the lighter color stones are advancing at a faster rate and CNN devotes a weeks worth of headlines to the story?

    • rob

      Global warming! Are you retarded?

    • nik

      Global warming has been in progress for the last 20-30,000 years, so that not deniable,
      What is deniable are the causes.
      It is ludicrous, to try and claim that its purely caused by human activity, as the current ‘human activity’ has only existed for the past 100 years, and didnt exist 30,000 years ago.
      The earth is on a regular 100,000 year cycle, of hot to cold and hot again.It is now in the final years of that cycle, and will continue to get hotter, regardless of how much carbon tax anyone pays.

      • mbkeefer

        30,000 years includes the depths of the glacial period when there was still some cooling going on.
        The NATURAL warming ended about 8,000 years ago. The was on a slow natural cooling trend for the last 6,000 years until about 150 years ago when it turned around. Since then our activities have wiped out the 6,000 years of cooldown and then gone well beyond the high point of 8,000 years ago.

  • Raymond Clifford

    I will buy That Speculative+ Explanation!

  • Sid Winek

    They can’t tell everyone that the rocks are alive because we’ll all freak out.

    • punk20

      lol, the fun part of my brain wants to accept your theory, but scientific part wants to believe the researchers. I prefer yours 😛

      • Rhea Foster

        “past theories” & current research both involve the same 3 attributes.

    • T.Doom

      I totally agree.

    • Everett Vinzant

      Alive and using Jedi mind tricks… these are not the stones you’re looking for.

  • jamescrackscorn

    Stop lying, Jesus did it!

    • Rietha Crafford


  • Bob Level

    Just another incidence of scientists doing real work and finding answers to natural phenomena, vs those that sit at home on the internet and espouse that “that’s impossible!”

    • Everett Vinzant

      Correction, you meant, “unpossible!”

    • Guest

      I reject your reality and substitute my own.

    • No-Mo-BO

      “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” – Adam Savage

    • Doug Wilson

      ” that’s impossible”

  • Mrs. Olaf Anderson

    If only we could use this knowledge to purposefully move other remote things. TED had a talk by an inventor who constructed legged “things” from plastic pipe and elbows which could move when the wind blew. Cool to contemplate.

    • Looiewu

      There was a piece on “Sixty Minutes” about that guy.

  • Bret Hammond

    The pioneers used to ride these babies for miles!

    • Linda Berg


      • scipio13


      • Mohammad Alhomsi


      • howzat1234


      • MATT

        I respect, and trust gullible people. deception, and cynical sarcasm, is an alien concept to them!

    • Tyler

      A rock! We’re SAVED!

  • Gerry Hazelton

    Nah, you all got it wrong… Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts had something to do with it….

  • Ren Faiz

    Scientists are not only athiests, but they are all anti-Christian. They continually use confusing “explanations” that do not make sense and only confuse people, trying to get people to believe what THEY say, so as to bash Christians and do Satan’s work..

    Science is a false God, as the holy scriptures of the Bible warned us. The moving rocks are divine miracles, the will of Jesus and God the Father – something we must respect and not try to question.

    Aaaah ha ha ha……..

    • Everett Vinzant

      That was good, you really had me rolling for a second…

      • Melissa Masquelier

        This was a joke, correct? Please, yes?

        • Everett Vinzant

          Yes, this was in good humor…

    • Tamra


      • Spraynard Kruger

        trollbait successful

    • John Boyle

      Where are you coming from not all scientists are unbeliever. This has nothing to do with religion. God created science from the first moment of creation. What do you believe he put his finger out and said create an universe. No one knows how God created anything. No human was there. Not even you. God is timeless. No beginning and no end. God doesn’t exist by the earth’s 24 hours. No human knows anything about God and His ways. The Bible days are only for human understanding and nothing else. God doesn’t even show himself to any living human. I guess you believe the sun goes around the earth? Science discovered what we now know about about the universe. He slowly reveals everything to humans through their brains. God is allowing humans to see and understand through science. God is all knowing and humans will never know everything about God. Humans beings even in heaven will not know all of God. People like you just don’t want to know the truth. Even as he slowly reveals the truth through science. Denying God powers and how He does things is beyond all human knowledge. God doesn’t needs days because there are no days in His timeless world. Our understanding of time is what we know in our world and not God’s world.

      • nik

        Lets say, God can be happy in his world, wherever that may be, and we can be happy in our world, and never the twain shall meet.

        • Emkay

          God is love, love is blind, Ray Charles is blind, Ray Charles is God…… why not?

          • Zo Lat Kam


            Gotta say, I was not expecting a genuinely humorous post in the midst of all of this, but this one made my evening! :)

          • Chuck Hallowell

            God is Love – Love is blind — thus, Ray Charles is God, Stevie Wonder is Jesus, and Helen Keller was the Virgin Mary — Repent, you sinners, and send your money to ME !!

      • Félix

        How do you know all this about God… have you two spoken of late?

      • WilliamBarnes

        Go and watch the new film, “Lucy”.

    • Rietha Crafford

      One word……..CRAP

    • eric

      I feel like enjoying science does not have to be hating specifically christians, at least hate on other religions equally (like bomb exploding muslems), they are even more simple minded. I think your just hating the same type of people on 0 a.d. that would have killed Jesus. I consider myself christian, not because I believe in a book, (which is exactly what Jesus voiced against), I believe in a man whose very mindset was god-like genius at the time of 0 a.d., having total transcendent viewpoint beyond civilization at a time where people were very primitive. If Jesus was on earth today he most definitely would be involved in science for the good of mankind.

      • WilliamBarnes

        He’d be killed just like he was the first time, though probably in a different way, and possibly at Guantamo.

      • Chuck Hallowell

        Jesus was not the brown-skinned, anti-war, Socialist who gave away free health care — you’re thinking of Barack Obama !!

  • Chuck

    After much viewing of the video, I have concluded that the rock is standing still and the ground under it is moving. Certainly on a par with some of the theories given. Thank you. Please mail me my Nobel prize.

  • Jon Hay

    How about shortening Goldilocks Rocks to GoldiRocks?

  • Chuck Hallowell

    I don’t know why all those scientists wasted their time and money investigating the “sailing rocks” phenomenon when all they had to do was ask Sarah Palin .
    During an interview on FOX News, she told Bill O’Reilly that the whole “sailing rocks” hoopla was all an atheist liberal plot to confuse the public and cover up Obama’s socialist agenda and the Benghazi conspiracy.

    • Valerie Tomlin

      Would LOVE to see that. Is there a YouTube video?

      • Chuck Hallowell

        Valerie —
        Yes, but it’s in my head and I can’t get it out !!

        • Lee MuttLee

          Yup, it is all in your head.

  • Tamra

    No, fairies did it!

  • Featherdog

    Did you notice that only ONE rock moved? Interesting…

    • Ivar Ivarson

      Well, Featherdog, that was sentient one . . . .

    • WilliamBarnes

      The others were taking a nap or on vacation.

  • eric

    I just wanted to remind people, that being conservative politically means you want a less intrusive smaller government, liberal meaning the opposite. This has nothing to do with fox news, abortion, christians, gay rights, denial of damaged environment or any of the other nonsense that people associate with conservative. Republicans are not even really conservative although they are more so than democrats.

    • Chuck Hallowell

      You obviously don’t know what you’re talking about. You would do well to study the words and thoughts of America’s leaders of the Conservative movement — Mr. William H. Buckley, who is considered by many to be the Father of American Conservatism, and Republican Senator and presidential candidate Mr. Barry Goldwater.
      Then study and compare those words to those of two of America’s former Democratic Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President Jimmy Carter.
      In any case, it appears that you know absolutely nothing about neither Conservative nor Liberal ideology.
      Read a few books and LEARN before you embarrass yourself any further!!

      • eric

        sorry folks, I am going not by book knowledge from credible sources but by what I have been told by random people (who are misinformed too), I obviously don’t know I discovered after doing some quick reading. My expertise is not politics, i’ll stick with my major next time. **foot in mouth**lol Imagine if what a said was true though, you do agree with a less intrusive smaller government? that was really the point I was getting at, normally I do not make political comments, I was more upset with the fox news comments, because I do occasionally enjoy watching, and am somewhat familiar and like the personalities on it.

        • eric

          I think I refer to myself as a fiscal conservative, not a political conservative.

          wikipedia quote:

          Fiscal conservatism is a politicoeconomic philosophy with regard to fiscal policy and the advocating of fiscal responsibility.

          • Emkay

            you do realize you can edit any entry in wikipedia and cause it to say anything you like..

        • rpmcestmoi

          sad admission, the Fox sympathy.

      • nik

        Who gives a sh*t, they’re all charlatans, out to fill their pockets at everyone else’s expense! They’re the biggest bunch of parasites that ever existed, after priests that is.

      • Lee MuttLee

        LOL – I’d say that you obviously can’t understand what eric wrote. What a bunch of nonsense chuck.

        Why do you want to embarrass yourself?

    • LDH20

      Did you reserve this special time to humiliate yourself by posting an unsupported political opinion with no relevance to the article?

      • Emkay

        the article made no reference to God.. but, holy posters!

    • Emkay

      “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”

      -Thomas Jefferson-

  • munkey deano

    wait your telling me stones don’t have feet ffs ?

  • Gloria Jean Dokken

    I believe it just proves that God has a sense of humor.

    • Chuck Hallowell

      Gloria — It would be nice if humor had a sense of God, eh!??

    • Emkay

      nah, God let Katrina happen… not funny..

  • SanFrancisco Professor

    Inspired one of Carl Barks’s great stories, I think.

  • sam

    Haha. Very interesting .. Or maybe there is something supernatural power behind this

  • Altaf Hussain

    thank u soo much you really wasted my time to read this all :/

    • rpmcestmoi


  • nik

    Actually, the’re not rocks, the’re aliens in disguise.

    • Emkay

      they’re not rocks, they’re aliens….. please…

  • buster01

    How about that?

  • Grant Cooper

    The scientists also observed that none of the stones gathered any moss…

  • Leith Yearwood

    You mean Jesus didn’t do it? Shucks- there goes another God of the Gaps argument!

  • Ralph

    Death Valley Rocks!

  • mary

    just awesome

  • Jane Ravenswood

    yay for the scientific method. Observation, no matter how boring, shows what’s going on. Pity creationists can’t get the same evidence.

    • NM156

      Yes, but Who watches the Watcher? That is the fundamental mystery of consciousness and energy and matter at the quantum level.

  • Dwayne Coleman

    THE PIONEERS used to now i wanna ride them!! yeah this is just the law of nature you cant deny!!

  • Joseph Mosqueda


  • mbkeefer

    My Hypotesis had been the rocks developed a skirt of ice on frosty nights and then if the wind came up, the ice skirt gave enough wind resistance to move the rocks. The flaw in my my idea was that the rocks are warmer than the water in such conditions and an ice skirt does not form.

  • Apollos Sun

    how tf are you gonna make a news website but cover half of it up with ads


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