Local researcher believes he knows the secret behind century-old desert mystery

LA JOLLA - A local researcher who believes his team has solved an enduring desert mystery is revealing the secret in his first television interview.

It's one of the great enduring mysteries in California.

In a barren lakebed in Death Valley, long zig-zag tracks are etched into the dried mud by hundreds of rocks known as the "sailing stones.” The tracks are located in a place now known as Racetrack Playa. The stones range from pebbles to several-hundred pound boulders.

Some have speculated aliens are the cause. Others point to hurricane winds.

“We've had a mystery for a hundred years and we think we've figured it out,” said Richard Norris.

Norris' quest for answers began in 2011.

Norris is a geologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and he and another researcher -- his cousin James Norris -- inserted GPS devices into rocks and set up a weather station at the lakebed. And then they waited.

“Two years into the experiment is when all the action took place,” said Norris.

In December 2013, a rare event played out at the site.

The lakebed, which had filled with rainwater, was now topped off by a thin sheet of ice above the water.

As the sun melted the ice and the wind started to blow, the ice broke.

“The ice began to move very abruptly. There was popping and cracking noises, across the mile-wide surface of the frozen lake,” said Norris.

What happened next is a phenomenon common in colder climates.

As the ice shattered, it also moved forward, pushing the rocks.

In one piece of video captured by Norris’ team, you can see one of the stones "sailing" across the water.

For one the men who uncovered it, there is excitement and this:         

“I'm a little disappointed. It's always nice to have that idea that there are mysterious forces in nature that you don't fully understand. In this particular case, I think we've solved that one,” said Norris.

Norris said a perfect storm of conditions is needed to move the rocks.

Rain must fill up the lake bed, but so much that the stones are submerged. If that happened, the ice would not be able to push the stones.    

Print this article Back to Top

Comments