First Observation of Rock Motion on Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park—Role of a Persistent Pool, Sun, Zephyrs, Windowpane Ice, and Tugboats

Friday, 19 December 2014
Richard D Norris, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA, United States and James M Norris, Interwoof, Santa Barbara, CA, United States
Trails in the mud-cracked surface of Racetrack Playa have been scored by hundreds of rocks up to 320 kg, but the mechanism of movement is debated. In Winter 2013-2014, we observed rocks in motion associated with a transient pool formed by winter precipitation. The pond was 7 cm deep on the southern edge of the playa, tapering to a mud flat to the north. Freezing during cold winter nights formed floating “windowpane” ice 3-5 mm thick. Rocks repeatedly moved on sunny days under light winds of 3-5 m/second, as the ice broke up near midday and was set into motion by wind stress on melt pools and the ice surface. Ice panels shoved rocks along the mud like a tugboat, sometimes forming moving imbricated ice piles upstream of the rocks and in other cases moving faster than the rocks and forming brash-filled leads downstream. GPS units mounted in experimental rocks recorded a creeping pace of 2-6 m/minute, a speed that made it difficult to observe trail formation visually.

The 2013-2014 pond formed on November 20-24 and persisted through early February 2014. During this time rocks were observed moving at least five times, and studies of “stiz marks” formed by rocks at the ends of trail segments show that there were likely 3-5 additional move events. Observed travel times ranged from a few seconds to 16 minutes. In one event, two experimental rocks 153 m apart began moving simultaneously and traveled 64.1 and 65.6 m respectively, ultimately moving 157-162 m in subsequent events. Rock motion depends on the creation of winter pools sufficiently deep to allow the formation of floating ice and exposed to the light winds and sun needed for ice breakup. The combination of these events is extremely rare, leading to highly episodic trail formation. Our observations differ from previous hypotheses in that the rocks were moved by thinner ice, at slower speeds, and by lighter winds than predicted.