For more than a century now people have reported that rocks, some as heavy as 700 pounds or more, were moving across the desert floor. It was as though someone or something had literally pushed them across the sand. No one ever knew how the slithering rocks of Death Valley moved, that is until now.
While no one actually saw the rocks move, they did leave a trail behind them sometimes a hundred yards long. Now, scientists believe they have solved the mystery of how these enormous rocks seemingly slid with ease across the desert.
With the aid of GPS tags attached to the boulders themselves, as well as a tiny video camera, a geologist from Scripps Institution of Oceanography has gathered evidence to prove exactly how the rocks were moved.
Along with his cousin, geologist Richard Norris has evidence that vast sheet of melting ice are what’s pushing these rocks around. Ice, in the desert? That’s right. While it’s one of the hottest places in America, Death Valley often dips below freezing at night.
These same trails in the sand befuddled miners more than a century ago and have baffled scientists for more than 60 years now. The craziest part is that the lines are not always straight but can often zig-zag, leaving a trail like from a slithering snake.
Norris, who was as bewildered as everyone else when he first saw the trails, says some of the rocks even moved side by side, almost as if in tandem. “They do things like … take high-angle turns,” says Norris. “Sometimes they reverse course.”
One theory behind the phenomena was that wind was pushing these rocks around. Windstorms in Death Valley can be quite severe, and once back in 1953 someone even landed an airplane on the desert floor and tried moving the rocks with his propeller. No luck. A few rocks rolled, but none slid.
While others did believe it was indeed the ice, there was simply no way to prove it. That’s when Norris and his cousin got the idea to place GPS tracking devices and cameras on the rocks themselves.
When asked if people thought he’d lost his mind, Norris answers, “Oh, well, kind of. I think that a lot of people thought, ‘Why are you putting GPS trackers on rocks?’ ” But the gamble paid off, and now a more than one hundred year mystery has been solved. Sorry, but there were no aliens involved.
Here’s how it all went down.
It had rained the day before, says Norris. Overnight, a thin sheet of ice (known as Playa) formed on the desert floor. But it wasn’t the ice forming that moved the rocks, as many had speculated in the past. In fact, it was just the opposite.
It all started when the sun came up. “And at that point the ice began to melt out in the center of the Playa,” Norris says, “and the ice began to pop and crackle all across the Playa surface as the ice began to move.”
That’s when the fireworks began.
In the morning when the sun came up, these sheets of ice, some as much as 50 feet across, began sliding on top of the water melting below them. “It’s basically being like a tugboat or a bulldozer,” Norris says. “It’s pushing the rocks very slowly along.”
Come check out this, taken by Norris himself, that shows the rocks actually moving and solving the century-old mystery.
Original content by PPE