Dynamic geology at AAPG

Brad Moorman stands next to his 48 inch (122 cm) Omni Globe spherical projection system on the AAPG exhibition floor, greeting passers by drawn in by its cycling animations of Getech's dynamic plate reconstructions. His map-lamp projects evolutionary visions of geologic processes like a beacon of inspiration for petroleum explorers.

I've attended several themed sessions over the first day and a half at AAPG and the ones that have stood out for me have had this same appeal.

Computational stratigraphy

Processes such as accommodation rate and sedimentation rate can be difficult to unpeel from stratal geometries. Guy Prince's PhD Impact of non-uniqueness on sequence stratigraphy used a variety of input parameters and did numerical computations to make key stratigraphic surfaces with striking similarity. By forward modeling the depositional dynamics, he showed that there are at least two ways to make a maximum flooding surface, a sequence boundary, and top set aggradations. Non-uniqueness implies that there isn't just one model that fits the data, nor two, however Guy cleverly made simple comparisons to illustrate such ambiguities. The next step in this methodology, and it is a big step, is to express the entire model space: just how many solutions are there? 

If you were a farmer here, you lost your land

Henry Posamentier, seismic geomorphologist at Chevron, showed extremely high-resolution 3D sparker seismic imaging just beneath the seafloor in the Gulf of Thailand. Because this locale is more than 1000 km from the nearest continental shelf, it has been essentially unaffected by sea-level change, making it an ideal place to study pure fluvial depositional patterns. Such fluvial systems result in reservoirs in their accretionary point bars, but they are hard to predict.

To make his point, Henry showed a satellite image of the Ping River from a few years ago in the north of Chiang Mai, where meander loops had shifted sporadically in response to one flood season: "If you were a farmer here, you lost your land."

Wells can tell about channel thickness, and seismic may resolve the channel width and the sinuosity, but only a dynamic model of the environment can suggest how well-connected is the sand.

The evolution of a single meandering channel belt

Ron Boyd from ConocoPhillips showed a four-step process investigating the evolution of a single channel belt in his talk, Tidal-Fluvial Sedimentology and Stratigraphy of the McMurray Formation.

  1. Start with a cartoon facies interpretation of channel evolution.
  2. Trace out the static geomorphological model on seismic time slices.
  3. Identify directions of fluvial migrations point by point, time step by time step.
  4. Distribute petrophysical properties within each channel element in chronological sequence.

Mapping the dynamics of a geologic scenario along a timeline gives you access to all the pieces of a single geologic puzzle. But what really matters is how that puzzle compares with the handful of pieces in your hand.

More tomorrow — stay tuned.

Google Earth imagery ©2014 DigitalGlobe, maps ©2014 Google

This post was modified on April 16, 2014, mentioning and giving redirects to Getech.

The etiology of rivers

The Ordovician was a primitive time. No mammals. No birds. No flowers. Most geologists know this, right? How about this: No meandering rivers.

Recently several geo-bloggers wrote about geological surprises. This was on my shortlist. 

A couple of weeks ago, Evan posted the story of scale-free gravity deformation we heard from Adrian Park and his collaborators at the Atlantic Geological Society's annual Colloquium. My own favourite from the conference was Neil Davies' account of the evolution of river systems:

Davies, Neil & Martin Gibling (2011). Pennsylvanian emergence of anabranching fluvial deposits: the parallel rise of arborescent vegetation and fixed-channel floodplains.

Neil, a post-doctoral researcher at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, started with a literature review. He read dozens of case studies of fluvial geology from all over the world, noting the interpretation of river morphology (fluvotype?). What he found was, to me at least, surprising: there were no reported meandering rivers before the Devonian, and no anabranching rivers before the Carboniferous. 

The idea that rivers have evolved over time, becoming more diverse and complex, is fascinating. At first glance, rivers might seem to be independent of life and other manifestly time-bound phenomena. But if we have learned only one thing in the last couple of decades, it is that the earth's systems are much more intimately related than this, and that life leaves its fingerprint on everything on earth's surface. 

A little terminology: anastomosing, a term I was more familiar with, is not strictly the correct term for these many-branched, fixed-channel rivers. Sedimentologists prefers anabranching. Braided and meandering river types are perhaps more familiar. The fluviotypes I'm showing here might be thought of as end members — most rivers show all of these characteristics through time and space.

What is the cause of this evolution? Davies and Gibling discussed two parallel effects: bank stabilization by soil and roots, and river diversion, technically called avulsion, by fallen trees. The first idea is straightforward: plants colonize river banks and floodplains, thus changing their susceptibility to erosion. The second idea was new to me, but is also simple: as trees got taller, it became more and more likely that fallen trunks would, with time, make avulsion more likely. 

There is another river type we are familiar with in Canada: the string of beaver dams (like this example from near Fort McMurray, Alberta). I don't know for sure, but I bet these first appeared in the Eocene. I have heard that the beaver is second only to man in terms of the magnitude of its effect on the environment. As usual, I suspect that microbes were not considered in this assertion.

All of this makes me wonder: are there other examples of evolution expressing itself in geomorphology like this?

Many thanks to Neil and Martin for allowing us to share this story. Please forgive my deliberate vagueness with some of the details — this work is not yet published; I will post a link to their forthcoming paper when it is published. The science and the data are theirs, any errors or inconsistencies are mine alone. 

In Our Time

When I lived in Calgary I walked 25 minutes to and from work every day. Melvyn Bragg's weekly BBC radio programme was always one of my favourite things to listen to on the way. Every show has the same format: an informal forty-minute discussion with three academics. But the quintessence of In Our Time is its diversity of topics: Avicenna to Yeats to the Aeneid to Zoroastrianism.

Over the years, Bragg and his guests have covered lots of geological subjects. The wonderful BBC keeps the archive completely open, so you can listen to any show any time. Here are the most geoscientiferous ones I can find in the archive:


Here are some others, less directly related to geoscience:


Tomorrow's programme is on random and pseudo-randomness. Can't wait!