Death Valley for the New Year

John and I spent New Years at the Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. It was extremely cold- but definitely worth it!

Race Track Death Valley google maps screen shot

The Racetrack in Death Valley

Racetrack Playa “sailing stones” The sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in the Racetrack. The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, leaving a track as they go, without human or animal intervention. They have never been seen or filmed in motion. Racetrack stones only move once every two or three years and most tracks last for three or four years. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks while those with smooth bottoms wander. Stones sometimes turn over, exposing another edge to the ground and leaving a different-sized track in the stone’s wake. The sailing stones are most likely moved by strong winter winds, reaching 90 mph, once it has rained enough to fill the playa with just enough water to make the clay slippery. The prevailing southwest winds across Racetrack playa blow to northeast. Most of the rock trails are parallel to this direction, lending support to this hypothesis. An alternate hypothesis builds upon the first. As rain water accumulates, strong winds blow thin sheets of water quickly over the relatively flat surface of the playa. A layer of ice forms on the surface as night temperatures fall below freezing. Wind then drives these floating ice sheets, their aggregate inertia and large area providing the necessary force required to move the larger stones. Rock trails would again remain parallel to the southwest winds. According to investigator Brian Dunning, “Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor.” A more recent theory is that ice collars form around rocks and when the local water level rises, the rocks are buoyantly floated off the soft bed. The minimal friction allows the rocks to be moved by arbitrarily light winds.

Racetrack Playa "sailing stones" The sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in the Racetrack. The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, leaving a track as they go, without human or animal intervention. They have never been seen or filmed in motion. Racetrack stones only move once every two or three years and most tracks last for three or four years. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks while those with smooth bottoms wander. Stones sometimes turn over, exposing another edge to the ground and leaving a different-sized track in the stone's wake. The sailing stones are most likely moved by strong winter winds, reaching 90 mph, once it has rained enough to fill the playa with just enough water to make the clay slippery. The prevailing southwest winds across Racetrack playa blow to northeast. Most of the rock trails are parallel to this direction, lending support to this hypothesis. An alternate hypothesis builds upon the first. As rain water accumulates, strong winds blow thin sheets of water quickly over the relatively flat surface of the playa. A layer of ice forms on the surface as night temperatures fall below freezing. Wind then drives these floating ice sheets, their aggregate inertia and large area providing the necessary force required to move the larger stones. Rock trails would again remain parallel to the southwest winds. According to investigator Brian Dunning, "Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor." A more recent theory is that ice collars form around rocks and when the local water level rises, the rocks are buoyantly floated off the soft bed. The minimal friction allows the rocks to be moved by arbitrarily light winds.

Racetrack Playa “sailing stones” The sailing stones are a geological phenomenon found in the Racetrack. The stones slowly move across the surface of the playa, leaving a track as they go, without human or animal intervention. They have never been seen or filmed in motion. Racetrack stones only move once every two or three years and most tracks last for three or four years. Stones with rough bottoms leave straight striated tracks while those with smooth bottoms wander. Stones sometimes turn over, exposing another edge to the ground and leaving a different-sized track in the stone’s wake. The sailing stones are most likely moved by strong winter winds, reaching 90 mph, once it has rained enough to fill the playa with just enough water to make the clay slippery. The prevailing southwest winds across Racetrack playa blow to northeast. Most of the rock trails are parallel to this direction, lending support to this hypothesis. An alternate hypothesis builds upon the first. As rain water accumulates, strong winds blow thin sheets of water quickly over the relatively flat surface of the playa. A layer of ice forms on the surface as night temperatures fall below freezing. Wind then drives these floating ice sheets, their aggregate inertia and large area providing the necessary force required to move the larger stones. Rock trails would again remain parallel to the southwest winds. According to investigator Brian Dunning, “Solid ice, moving with the surface of the lake and with the inertia of a whole surrounding ice sheet, would have no trouble pushing a rock along the slick muddy floor.” A more recent theory is that ice collars form around rocks and when the local water level rises, the rocks are buoyantly floated off the soft bed. The minimal friction allows the rocks to be moved by arbitrarily light winds.

Leave a Reply