Sailing stones of Racetrack Playa, a mysterious phenomenon

The sailing stones of Racetrack Playa have puzzled many for nearly a century. Here's the explanation behind this mysterious phenomenon.

Mysterious Rock Trails

What are the sailing stones?

Located in Racetrack Plata, a dry lake in Death Valley National Park, the sailing stones are a geographical phenomenon where rocks move without human or animal intervention and create long tracks behind them. The natural event was first observed by prospector Joseph Crook in 1915 when he visited from Nevada. Geologists Jim McAllister and Allen Agnew published a report about the sliding rocks in the Geologic Society of America Bulletin, drawing the attention of several naturalists. Since then they have been researched for the last several years by scientists and publications including Life magazine.

Despite the mystery, some visitors do not respect the importance of this phenomenon. In recent years, there has been both theft and vandalism of the sailing rocks and their trails. In 2013, some were stolen and never recovered. In 2016, one of the rocks had initials carved into them and the area was covered with tire tracks, ruining the natural tracks. However, the tire tracks have since been cleaned by volunteers. Today, there are over thirty rocks still out there and occasionally moving every so often.

How do they move?

The answer was determined back in 2014. This movement of the rocks occurs because of a layer of ice that is created by intense winter rainfall and freezing night temperatures. Then the ice melts into large sheets of ice that float on puddles of water. This exposes the rock and ice sheets to incredibly strong winds that drag and the rocks move up to 5 meters per minute. This defied previous research done by geologist George Stanley when he wrote in his 1955 paper that the stones were too heavy to be moved by winds. However, climate change may affect the number of times this phenomenon occurs as there has already been a decline in the sailing stone movement since the 1990s, making the sailing stones even more special.

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