Death Valley’s Moving Rocks: A Modern Riddle

For almost seventy years, scientists have been mystified by and have no real explanation for the phenomenon known as the moving rocks found in the “Racetrack” a dry lake-bed (playa) of Death Valley. Although no one has ever seen the rocks in motion, they are thought to move with the speed of a person walking. Until now, no plausible explanation, such as the force of gravity or even earthquakes, has stood the test of time.

While wind speeds might explain the displacement, more than 150 miles-per-hour gusts would be needed in order to shift most of the rocks. Although the wind speeds of the playa’s surface are fast, they are nowhere near fast enough. There is also speculation that the rocks of the Racetrack Playa have special, unknown properties that help to propel their locomotion, but the dark dolomite boulders that cascade from the mountain highlands are very common. The only thing that sets them apart is their location and how they got there.

There is a current theory, which may or may not end the mystery. A new project spearheaded by NASA’s Goddard Space Center and conducted by a team of both graduate and undergraduate students placed tiny sensors underneath the soil, which served to monitor water flows down the surrounding hills, which freezes in March when it hits the lake-bed. After studying data from these sensors, researchers discovered that ice collars form around the stones and propel them forward as they float.

According to Cynthia Cheung, a principal investigator for the project:

“…The ice theory is not rock solid. The harsh desert’s many microclimates mean that each rock … may move by a different force, and there may not be one hypothesis that fits all the movements.”

The rocks are of all sizes and weights, some even as large as boulders weighing hundreds of pounds, and they leave behind a tangling and weird array of trails. Some of the rocks are loners and others move in pairs; their two tracks as perfectly synchronized as if made by the wheels of a car. Still others wander haphazardly, either ending up near other rocks or (and here is where it really gets interesting) they COMPLETELY DISAPPEAR!

Researchers back in the 1940’s suggested that big sheets of ice might surround groups of rocks and aided by the force of the wind somehow drag the rocks around together. This might explain the cases in which two tracks run perfectly alongside each other.

There are still, however, many more questions than answers surrounding the mysterious moving rocks of Death Valley.

Seen any moving rocks lately?

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  1. Emily Taylor says:

    I don't understand why these rocks move, but I have two of them and one has been moving despite being indoors in a tiny zen garden instead of being in 100 mile winds ect. So I'm thinking that's not the only cause.