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Scientists Use GPS To Solve The Mystery of Death

Valley's 'Rolling Stones'

By Meera Dolasia on September 13, 2014

Death Valley National Park in California's Mojave Desert is known for many things - Its extreme
temperatures, varied altitude that ranges from 282ft. below sea level to 11,000ft. above, beautiful
rugged terrain and most of all, 'rolling' or 'dancing' stones. The phenomenon whereby large
boulders, some weighing as much as 500 lbs, move several hundred yards in a straight line or zigzag
patterns, has confounded experts for years.
While the most logical explanation would be a gradual incline, the rolling rocks are all located close
to Racetrack Playa, a dry lake bed that lies in the flattest section of the park. What's even more
intriguing is that nobody has ever witnessed the movements. The only evidence that the rocks are
moving is from the extensive tracks they leave behind in the dry sand.
Over the years, there have been numerous theories. Some thought the rocks were being propelled
by hurricane-force winds, while others believed that the movement was the result of the thin ice that
forms over the lake bed, acting as a sledge to help move the rocks forward. There were also the
skeptics who believed that it was Park Rangers that physically moved them around and the wishful
thinkers who attributed it to Unidentified Flying Objects (UFO's). But nobody had ever been able to
prove how the rocks moved, until recently.
Determined to solve the mystery once and for all, a team of researchers from the Scripps Institution of
Oceanography at UC San Diego turned to modern technology for assistance. In the winter of 2011,
they situated 15 rocks fitted with GPS devices as well as a sophisticated weather station that
tracked wind speeds at one second intervals, at the Racetrack Playa. Since the rocks move
extremely rarely, the researchers thought they would have to wait a long time to get answers.
Turns out this was not the case at all. When lead researchers Jim Norris and Richard Norris visited
the Racetrack Playa in early December, 2013, they noticed that it was filled with 3 inches of water.
Then came the big day! At around noon on December 21st, 2013, the two heard popping and
cracking sounds emanating from the water which had froze overnight and was now melting from the
sun's heat. The scientists knew they had found their answer. As scientists from Hampshire College in
Massachusetts, had suggested a few years ago, during winter, the below freezing nightly
temperatures of the area turn the surface water in the lake bed to ice. When the frozen layer starts to
melt in the morning, it breaks up into chunks of floating ice that act like sledges. This, accompanied
by the right amount of wind, helps the rocks roll across the sand. Since the ice sheets are extremely
thin, they often break up while the rocks are rolling, explaining the willy-nilly patterns created by

The scientists who published their research in the online journal PLOS ONE on August 25th, 2014,
say that similar to snow rollers, for the rocks to move, the conditions have to be perfect. First and
foremost, the water in the Playa has to be substantial so that it can form floating ice when the
temperatures drop during the winter, but not so deep that it submerges the rocks. Also, the ice has to
be the right consistency - too thin and it will melt when the sun emerges, too thick and it will be
unable to move around nimbly. Finally, there has to be a gentle breeze to get everything in motion.
What was surprising was how little it took to move the rocks - The sheets of ice needed to be just
about 0.25 inches thick and the breeze, a mere 10mph. Of course, the rock movement is extremely
slow and small - just a few inches and only for a few seconds - hardly enough for anyone to be able
to observe any motion. In fact, the only reason the scientists were able to pinpoint when it happened,
was thanks to the GPS records.

Unfortunately, though the scientists were able to observe five such movements on hundreds of small
rocks during the two and half winter months when the Playa was filled with water, they were never
able to catch any of the big boulders in action. Whether those move in the same way, is a mystery
that still needs to solved!
Resources:,, PLOS
Article Comprehension: (on your own sheet of paper)
1. Write a 5 sentence reflection on what this article is about
2. Why are the rolling rocks in Death Valley considered such a mystery?
3. What are some of the theories that have been suggested?
4. What did the researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography find out after fitting the rocks
with GPS?