Home Page Science Frontiers

No. 109: Jan-Feb 1997

Issue Contents

Other pages

Other Interesting Sites











Wind-driven Ice Sheets In Death Valley

Scientists generally scoff at Forteana as beneath their dignity to investigate. But the mysterious moving rocks on Racetrack Playa in Death Valley have lured them out of their ivied halls. We quote from the abstract of a report seen in the mainstream journal Geology.

"Sharply angular boulders as large as 320 kg [700 pounds] sit on the Racetrack Playa, Death Valley, California; trails leading to them indicate that the rocks have moved large distances. The process has never been witnessed. Although high winds and a wetted surface seem necessary, controversy persists about the need for other conditions, especially ice sheets. On the basis of experiments with a wetted Racetrack surface (soft mud about 3 cm deep), we find the effective coefficient of friction to be surprisingly high, about 0.8. Movement by wind alone of moderate-sized (20 kg) rocks with cubic shape requires sustained winds close to the ground of about 80 m/s (about 180 mph). Larger flat-lying rocks require much higher winds."

The authors of this paper, J.B. Reid, Jr., et al, precisely mapped a large number of the enigmatic tracks. Their maps revealed many "mated pairs" of rocks, whose curving tracks matched near their origins to within a few centimeters, even though the tracks were separated by up to 830 meters (over 0.5 mile!). Apparently these mated rocks were locked into a huge ice sheet resting -- almost floating -- on slippery mud. Sustained winds blowing over the large areas of ice generated enough horizontal force to propel the ice sheets with their cargos of rocks. Measurements showed that some of these ice sheets had to be at least 850 x 500 m (about 100 acres!) in extent. That's big, to be sure, but hardly anomalous.

(Reid, John B., Jr., et al; "Sliding Rocks at the Racetrack, Death Valley: What Makes Them Move?" Geology, 23: 819, 1995)

Comment. If scientists would spend as much effort on marine light wheels and UFOs as they do on sliding rocks, we anomalists wouldn't have so much to write about. It's all a question of what is "academically respectable."

Reference. Sliding rocks at Racetrack Playa and other localities are cataloged at ESM11 on Neglected Geological Anoma lies. For a description of this book, visit here.

Parallel tracks of rocks on Racetrack Playa Two of the parallel tracks of rocks on Racetrack Playa. The parallelism suggests that the rocks were embedded in the same ice sheet.

From Science Frontiers #109, JAN-FEB 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987