Saturday, May 4, 2013

For your consideration…the Alabama Hills

Ok, I’ll be honest …I’m secretly hoping someone screams “Nerd!” at me in the comments, because in this post I’m reveling in it. I’ve already got my tickets for Iron Man 3 this weekend, and considering that Disney is spending tens of millions of dollars marketing that film, I might as well try to tag along. Either I’ll be stealing attention from their marketing, or helping it, or maybe both. So, for this post (and my next one), I’m delving into geology that appeared in the first Iron Man film.

This image comes from the state of California, just outside of the town of Lone Pine, a place known as the Alabama Hills. In the background, you can see the Sierra Nevada mountain range, with Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States, in the distance almost at the center of the frame.

In California, the main mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, runs north-south through the state. On the west side, the Sierras gradually lose elevation and merge into sedimentary basins in the Central Valley, but on the east side, they stop abruptly.

The Sierras are cut on their eastern side by a series of normal faults that have dropped the rocks down and created a deep, sediment-filled basin known as Owens valley. You can see the trace of one of those faults in this image; it basically marks the place where the mountains go from incredibly steep to very flat.

The Alabama Hills sit right in the middle of Owens Valley. They’re made of granite that is very similar to the rocks of the Sierra Nevada, but there are about 3 kilometers of valley floor between them and the Sierras. The Alabama Hills are a block of the Sierras basically trapped in the middle of Owens valley.

These hills are pieces of Sierran granite, but because they are bounded by faults, they didn’t drop down as far as the rest of the valley. The faults around the hills still move, and in fact there was a magnitude 7.4 earthquake along the east side of the Alabama Hills in 1872.

They sit in an incredibly picturesque area. There isn’t a lot of rain, so the hills don’t erode rapidly, but since they’re not big they’re easy to climb on or drive around, and they have the gorgeous Sierra Nevada as a backdrop. These hills are such a great location that they show up throughout Hollywood history. The other name for the portion of land right around the Alabama Hills sums this up pretty well; Movie Flat. If you look in the background of any number of “western” movies, there’s this remarkable habit of Mount Whitney showing up. Django Unchained, Gladiator, Tremors, How the West was Won; the list of films shot here seems endless. Captain Kirk was even buried here.

The Alabama Hills also sit in the rain shadow of the Sierras; they don’t receive much precipitation, making the area great for filming desert scenes. The weathering granite helps as well, it weathers to grus; broken up fragments of the grains in the granite that don’t host much vegetation and give a good impression of a desert when they’re on camera.

That brings me back to Iron Man. In the 2008 Iron Man film, the Alabama Hills played a key role, standing in for Afghanistan. This spot is where Tony Stark demonstrates the Jericho Missile. In fact, they test the missile on the Sierras; literally on the slopes just south of Mount Whitney. The scene where Stark is attacked and captured by militants, leading to the development of his miniaturized arc reactor, was also filmed right here, in the Alabama Hills. So effectively, the entire Iron Man film series (and the other Avengers movies) got their start right here, in the shadows of Mount Whitney.

So, to paraphrase the movie…ladies and gentlemen, for your consideration…the Alabama Hills.

Photo credit: Me! No rights reserved.

1872 Lone Pine Earthquake:

Alabama Hills on Tripadvisor:

Alabama Hills from the BLM:

Lone Pine Film Database (39 pages!):

And why not, the video clip:

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