Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Rocks For Shots
How knowing a little geology makes you a better landscape photographer
I can still recall the first time I laid eyes on the red rock country around Moab, Utah. Having spent the first 18 years of my life in the rolling green hills of New Jersey, it was like stepping out of a spaceship onto the surface of Mars. Nothing could have prepared me for this other-worldly landscape of soaring cliffs, deep canyons and sparkling snowcapped peaks. As alien as the land seemed, or perhaps just for that reason, I was compelled to learn more about how this remarkable assemblage of rocks came to be. My bookshelves soon overflowed with geology books on the region, and as my knowledge increased, I discovered that I could use this information to locate beautiful subjects to photograph, just like geologists know where to look for gold based on their knowledge of the terrain.
Before I explain how I did this, allow me to provide an overview of the geologic history of this remarkable region. Known to most of us as the red rock and canyonlands country, the Colorado Plateau contains all the famous rivers, canyons, mesas and buttes of the American Southwest, from the depths of the Grand Canyon to the windswept heights of those snowcapped peaks above Moab. This major geologic province measures 130,000 square miles in extent and covers four Western states. To outline the region, trace a rough line from the Uinta Mountains in northeastern Utah down to Las Vegas, then southeast through Sedona, Ariz., to Albuquerque, N.M., and then north through western Colorado back to your starting point.
No other place on earth comes close to matching the overwhelming display of bizarre landforms exposed here. What confluence of geological events in the distant past created this remarkable landscape? To sum it up in a nutshell, this crumpled, dissected, convoluted country owes its looks today to the fact that it spent most of the last 500 million years either slightly above or slightly below sea level as a mostly featureless flat surface. As sea levels fluctuated due to periodic Ice Ages or enormous ocean-floor basalt flows, or as the land itself rose or fell due to tectonic forces, ocean water would invade across the low, flat landscape and retreat again when sea levels dropped. When the sea flooded the land, thick layers of limestone were deposited on the ocean floor, and fine-grained sediments, supplied by large rivers, rained down into the depths. When the seas retreated, these same sediment-laden rivers swept across the land surface and deposited enormous quantities of sand and mud on their extensive flood plains. When changing climate dried up the rivers, these sandy sediments would blow across the region to create vast dune fields reminiscent of today's Sahara only to be inundated again by shallow seas. This never-ending ebb and flow between wet, dry, riverine and oceanic environments eventually laid down a layer cake of river floodplain, tidal mudflat, shallow water and eolian (windblown sand dune) deposits, which have now been uplifted and exposed for us to photograph. Talk about luck!
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