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Environment

Death Valley's Sailing Stones Riddle Solved

A perfect balance of weather conditions drives one of the natural world's most mysterious phenomena.

sailing_stones.jpg
Thomas Dressler/imageBROKER/Corbis

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Death Valley National Park is home to a natural wonder that’s baffled scientists for decades: large rocks that mysteriously trudge across a barren lakebed, leaving trails in their wake. In August, researchers announced they had caught the “sailing stones” moving on camera, thus solving the riddle.

sailing_stones_timelapse.jpg
These time-lapse photos from Jan. 9, 2014, capture a “sailing stone” (denoted by the red arrow) moving across the lakebed very quickly — 18 seconds in this case. A combination of ice, sun and wind causes the rocks to move. | Richard D. Norris, et al., PLoS ONE/doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0105948 aug. 27, 2014

According to data collected from a weather station, GPS-embedded rocks and time-lapse photography, a perfect balance of sun, rain, wind and ice sets the rocks in motion. When the sun’s heat broke apart ice that had formed atop a pond, the wind pushed the large, yet thin, sheets of ice into the rocks. Ice accumulated behind the stones, providing the push necessary for the rocks to “sail.”

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