Past Messages


Bob Loucks, Summer 2005

loucksAs we geoscientists get more and more into the digital world in our jobs, we must make an increased effort to stay in touch with the basics of geology. We all need to be well versed in sedimentology, even if we don't see a rock for weeks on end. I strongly believe that the most basic sedimentology is learned from the study of depositional systems and associated processes in modern settings.

Back when I was a graduate student at UT Austin, I enjoyed my courses in clastics and carbonates and especially enjoyed field trips to outcrops of ancient environments that were being conducted all around Austin. However, it was not until I started going on field trips to the Texas coast and the Florida Keys that I made that quantum jump from knowing sedimentology to understanding sedimentology. It was what I call the "P3 Principle" (processes produce products) that allowed me to truly start understanding sedimentology as a science instead of just a bunch of associated facts.

It is only in modern areas of deposition that we can accurately appreciate processes producing products. What easier place is there to learn sedimentology than standing on a wave-swept beach along Galveston Island, sinking up to your waist in mud on the Mississippi delta, snorkeling in strong currents over an ooid shoal in the Caicos Island, or diving on a colorful barrier reef in southern Belize? Sediments are all around you. It is not hard to guess what depositional environment you are in. You can reach down and pick up a handful of sediment and see its texture and fabric. You can start to understand the parameters that set up reservoir quality and see the lateral extent and distribution of a potential reservoir.

The great thing about modern settings is that you can ask: "How did this sediment form?" To answer, you need only look around and comprehend the depositional processes that affect the area where you are standing. You may only see the fair-weather, everyday processes on a particular day, but it doesn't take much imagination to picture a strong "norther" or a hurricane crossing the area. You can ask: "Where did this sediment come from?" In the Caribbean, answers patiently await you. You can see the contributors all around you. Live corals, algae, echinoids, and all sorts of critters are available for inspection—a little intuition is all that is needed to see what would happen to them after death. Pick up a handful of detritus and see if your analysis is correct.

Modern environments are the best place to form an understanding of sedimentology, depositional environments, facies, textures, fabric, etc. Modern environments are geoscientists' natural laboratory for understanding what they see from rock, wireline-log, and seismic data. Without a true understanding of sedimentology, or the P3 Principle, we are only performing "black box" functions in our jobs. Furthermore, not only must geoscientists go on these modern field trips, but they must drag along their engineer colleagues. The engineers will enjoy the experience as much as geoscientists and they will probably learn more than the geoscientists. This will probably be the first geology course that they feel is worth the effort, and it could be the one course they can appreciate because they wouldn't have to learn a bunch of meaningless terms that they would soon forget. Of course, good weather certainly helps make the experience more rewarding.

What I am writing here is based on practical experience. I have been lucky enough in my career to run the modern carbonate courses for Cities Service and ARCO. My co-leaders and I have taken geologists, geophysicists, petrophysicists, engineers, and landmen on these trips. I have run trips to the Florida Keys, Little Bahamas Bank, Cancun, Belize, Turks and Caicos, and Barbados. In each of the companies, this course was often considered the most rewarding learning experience. This evaluation wasn't based only on the incredibly beautiful areas we were working in. It was also based on the quantum jump in understanding carbonate sedimentology that was gained. A typical day lasted from seven in the morning to seven at night. Work projects completed during the day were presented in the evening. It didn't hurt that the summary presentations were held around the pool with conch fitters and appropriate beverages. I need to add that the modern clastic course was also highly rated, but the Mississippi delta is not the Caribbean.

Probably the most important group of people to bring on such field trips is management. I cannot count the number of times that I heard that a modern carbonate trip is a "boondoggle." Many managers felt it was a paid vacation where participants just lay on the beach and drank piña coladas. When we did get managers on the trip, however, they commonly sent their geoscientists on the trip the following year. Management also thought the trip would be too expensive. The trips are not cheap, but they are no more expensive than ancient-setting field trips where four-wheel-drive vehicles are utilized. What is needed for a successful modern-setting field trip is a leader that pays attention to detail and safety. The days have to be well organized, and work problems need to be set up for each stop. A well-prepared guidebook with plenty of maps and air photos, along with pictures of the fauna and flora, is necessary. On these courses it is a must to keep participants oriented so they know where they are now relative to where they are going next and where they just came from. This is the only way to get a feel for the lateral extent of environments and their relationship to each other.

I hope all readers of this column will encourage their management to allow them to attend modern field courses. There are some excellent courses offered by professional societies and consultants. Several of the larger companies still run their own courses. I strongly suggest that groups from the same company take the course together, along with their sedimentology expert. One benefit of a modern field trip is the team-building experience, which allows discussion of concepts that will then belong to the company. If you are a manager reading this column, consider sending your group on one of these field trips. If you have doubts of the field trip's value, contact me, or go on one yourself!

One other suggestion to management: How about taking along a few students on your modern-setting field trips? Not many universities offer this type of experience anymore. This would be a great way to get to know students, and it would certainly help students with their education. You could be assured of leaving a positive impression on these future potential employees.

Now, if you are really interested in having a great experience by going on one of these modern-environment field trips, tear this column out and put it in your manager's mailbox.