…Visitors to Death Valley have to go out of their way to visit Racetrack Playa, which sits 1,130 metres above sea level and is a bumpy three-hour drive from the nearest town. The researchers began studying the region in 2011, setting up a weather station and time-lapse cameras and dropping off rocks loaded with Global Positioning System (GPS) trackers. The rocks were designed to start recording their position and speed as soon as something made them move.
What was not clear was how long the Norrises would have to wait. Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, has been studying the playa since 2007 as an analogy to lake beds on other planets. He had little faith that the GPS-equipped rocks would move in a time frame that anyone would capture. “I thought it was going to be the most boring experiment in the history of science,” he says.
But when the researchers travelled to the playa in December 2013 to check instruments and change batteries, they found a huge ice-encrusted pond covering about one-third of the 4.5-kilometre-long playa. After several days of camping, they decided to sit above the southern end of the playa on the morning of 20 December. “It was a beautiful sunny day, and there began to be rippled melt pools in front of us,” Richard Norris says. “At 11:37 a.m., very abruptly, there was a pop-pop-crackle all over the place in front of us — and I said to my cousin, ‘This is it.’ ”
They watched as the ice began moving past the rocks, mostly breaking apart but also shoving them gently. The rocks began to inch along, but their pace was too slow to spot by eye. “A baby can get going a lot faster than your average rock,” Richard Norris says.
But when the ice melted away that afternoon, they saw freshly formed trails left behind by more than 60 moving rocks. And on 9 January, James Norris returned to the playa with Lorenz and was able to record video of the roving rocks. “This is transformative,” says Lorenz. “It’s not just an anecdotal report, but we have before and after pictures, and meteorological information simultaneous with the event.” By the end of the winter, the farthest-moving rock had travelled 224 metres.
Racetrack Playa rocks move rarely — “maybe a few minutes out of a million,” Lorenz says. And the two events the scientists saw, with thin ice panes shoving the stones across a wet playa, do not necessarily explain every instance of rocks moving there. “But this breaks the back of the problem scientifically,” Lorenz says. “It is ice shove.”…