Trail formation by ice-shoved "sailing stones" observed at Racetrack Playa, Death Valley National Park
Trails in the usually-hard mud of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park attest to the seemingly-improbable movement of massive rocks on an exceptionally flat surface. The movement of these rocks, previously described as "sliding stones", "playa scrapers", "sailing stones" etc., has been the subject of speculation for almost a century but is an exceptionally rare phenomenon and until now has not been directly observed. Here we report documentation of multiple rock movement and trail formation events in the winter of 2013-2014 by in situ observation, video, timelapse cameras, a dedicated meteorological station and GPS tracking of instrumented rocks. Movement involved dozens of rocks, forming fresh trails typically of 10s of meters length at speeds of ~5 cm s-1 and were caused by wind stress on a transient thin layer of floating ice. Fracture and local thinning of the ice decouples some rocks from the ice movement, such that only a subset of rocks move in a given event.