Santa Barbara is the home of many notable “firsts,” including the Egg McMuffin, hydraulic brakes, Sambo’s restaurant, Motel 6, Ranch dressing and more modernly First Thursday.

Now we can add to that illustrious list this thrilling accomplishment: A team of amateur scientists from Santa Barbara has solved the long-standing mystery of why the “sailing rocks” on Death Valley National Monument’s Racetrack Playa move.  

The inquisitive group of local folks took on this project because, in their minds, “science is fun.”

Many had spent time at Death Valley over the years and had been puzzled by the phenomenon of the rocks — some large and some small — that mysteriously moved, leaving a type of “snail track” in the silt of the dead flat playa.

The phenomenon, which can be seen in a variety of YouTube videos (surprise, surprise), was first noted about 70 years ago. Since that time many theories have abounded as to the underlying cause of the bizarre behavior of the rocks.

Some of those theories involve movement by wind and water during a winter storm, intervention by Allah,  the involvement of extraterrestrial beings, terrestrial pranksters messing with geologists, and possibly even animals moving the rocks for reasons only known to themselves.

While a horned toad appears to be pushing rock at the Playa Racetrack, ergonomic research quickly disproved that theory. This little guy did go on to become the mascot of the research team from Santa Barbara. (Mike Hartmann photo)

Our intrepid team of investigators came together after its leader, Jim Norris, a consulting engineer by profession, posed the question of the moving rocks to a group of friends, who like himself, have a deep love for Death Valley.

The group of men and women quickly grew to about 30 committed souls, and resolved to “once and for all solve the damn mystery.”

When Jim first posed the question in 2010, there was no scientific agreement regarding what caused the rocks to move, but the general consensus within the scientific community was that high winds and water on the playa were involved in the propulsion of the moving rocks.

As with every project, logistics are often the most trying part of the program. Before undertaking field research, the group was required to obtain a permit from the U.S. Park Service.

Weather was another another significant factor, not only because the group needed to erect a mobile weather station, but also because of Death Valley’s legendary temperature extremes.

The location of the playa also posed a logical problem due not only its remoteness, but also because the playa is located in a designated wilderness preserve. Supplies, equipment and all research materials had to be carried in on foot to areas specified by the Park Service, which required packing rocks which weighed between 12 and 65 pounds apiece along with the weather station, which in and of itself weighed about 300 pounds.

Part of the sailing stones research team meets on the playa to go over the day’s planned fun activities. From left are Kail Wathine, Jim Norris, Jane Ray, Jib Ray, an unidentified researcher and Jeff McFarlane. (Michael Hartmann photo)

The rocks used in the research project were of the type found on the playa, but restrictions by the National Park Service required that the investigators use rocks other than those gathered within the actual park boundary itself.

As a result, Jim enlisted the help of his father, the late Dr. Robert Norris, a retired UCSB geology professor. Together the men were able to find suitable rocks on nearby BLM land that could be used in experiments and research.

So how do you measure the movement of rocks out in the middle of nowhere? Why, with GPS technology of course.

But now the group had logistical problem set 2.1. How to fabricate an affordable GPS recorder that could withstand all weather extremes including hot and cold, dry and wet, for a total of 15 rocks that could maintain viable battery power after being left alone on the playa for a long period of time. 

With a bunch of rocks and a bunch of power tools, a bunch of guys started drilling away and ended up making a bunch of bionic rocks that would hopefully, once and for all, answer the riddle of the sailing rocks of Racetrack Playa.

In November of 2012, after shlepping the rocks to the dry lake bed, the intrepid investigators (one of whom is Peter’s brother, Mike), strategically placed them and kissed them goodbye with the hopes that they would “sail” in the coming months.

As it turned out, the rocks were more illusive than the investigators had originally anticipated.

Jim Norris makes field adjustments on one of the instrumented rocks. (Michael Hartmann photo)

Ultimately, over the course of about one year, Interwolf Engineering — which luckily is owned by Jim Norris and his business partner, Jib Ray — was required to perform three separate firmware updates on the GPS units to get data in order to measure the movement of the rocks.

Satisfied that the rocks and the GPS’s were operational, the team left the rocks at the playa and returned to Santa Barbara.  

In December 2013, two of the heartier members of the group, Jim and his cousin, Richard Norris, made a pilgrimage to the Racetrack playa to check on the rocks and  enjoy a campout in near arctic conditions…well maybe not, but it was too cold for most to camp.

There they noticed the dry playa had become a partially frozen lake and they also heard the unusual sound of ice forming. During their three-day stay, the men discovered that natural rocks were moving, due to a process known in the frozen latitudes as “ice shove.”

Due to the lake conditions, Jim and Richard weren’t able to check on the research rocks — they had been placed too far out onto the frozen lake bed — so it was impossible to know whether the research rocks had “sailed” as anticipated.

By mid-January 2014, a group of investigators, including Jim and Russ Crane, returned to the Racetrack Playa, and found that the research rocks had indeed sailed. The farthest GPS rock had traveled about 735 feet.

This is Akycha, one of the instrumented sailing stones and its track on the playa. It sailed the farthest of the instrumented rocks, about 735 feet. The instrumented rocks were named for goddesses to distinguish them from the previously studied native stones that had been given women’s names. (Mike Hartmann photo)

By examining the GPS data and reconciling it with data from the mobile weather station, the investigators were able to definitively conclude that the rocks’ movement was due to the phenomenon of ice shove during a light wind event.

Therefore, they concluded that no extraterrestrials, gods or native animals were involved in the long-standing mystery of the movement of rocks on the desert floor. 

What exactly is ice shove, and why is it such an exciting phenomenon? An ice shove is essentially when pieces of floating ice are rammed into the shoreline of a lake, or in this case the on the playa, stones by the wind.

In extreme Arctic cases, the ice shoves are massive and can be as tall as 10 feet high, but out in the desert where water is limited, the ice shove is on a much smaller scale.

Sailing stones that had moved due to the previous night’s ice event. (Jim Norris photo)

Smaller scale, but still powerful enough to move the rocks of the Racetrack playa, leaving a tell-tail trail that has excited and fascinated visitors and created not only myths but legends about the source of this “mysterious” phenomenon. 

Thanks to our Santa Barbara “scientists,” no longer will the sailing rocks of the Racetrack playa be featured on cheesy late night shows about paranormal phenomenon.

For what it’s worth, we’re still wondering about Sasquatch and Nessie. Maybe another research project for this team is in order?

[Click here to see more photos and a time-lapse video of the sailing rocks of the Playa Racetrack in Death Valley]

If you are interested in reading a more scientific version of this fascinating phenomenon, here’s the link to PLOS ONE.