Top 100 Landmark Papers Petroleum Structural Geology

Top 10 Landmark-Contribution Papers in Petroleum Structural Geology

Co-Chairs, Jim Lowell and Rick Groshong

Clare Bond, Eric Erslev


This is our final list of the best structural geology and plate-tectonic papers. All the papers are landmarks and all still well worth reading today. The papers are listed in alphabetical order by author.

Landmark-Contribution Papers

Allan, U. S., 1989, Model for hydrocarbon migration and entrapment within faulted structures: AAPG bulletin, v. 73, p. 803-811.

Allen (1989) established a method for predicting across-fault flow based on the juxtaposition of reservoirs and seals across a fault. The diagram showing the relationships, now called an Allan diagram, is also one of the most powerful tools for quality control of the interpretation of bed geometry at the fault plane. Its lasting impact is evidenced by the extensive references it has received since publication, currently c. 400 citations. The term 'Allan diagrams' is used commonly to describe fault juxtaposition diagrams. The concept is used extensively in modern fault seal prediction software.

The paper integrates the prediction of fault traps and spill points based on structure-contour maps with the three-dimensional juxtapositions of permeable and impermeable units along an entire fault surface. It is far better than the previous standard of judging closures using only the geometry of the reservoir top.

Allen also showed that across-fault flow may be controlled by the three-dimensional rock juxtaposition patterns between the hanging wall and footwall. The methods in this contribution are globally utilized and have been developed and delivered through industry software packages. e.g. Petrel, TrapTester, Move, and more.

Bally, A.W., P. L. Gordy, and G. A. Stewart, 1966, Structure, seismic, data, and orogenic evolution of southern Canadian Rocky Mountains:  Bulletin Canadian Association Petroleum Geologists, v. 14, p. 337-381.

Bally, Gordy and Stewart (1966) tested the hypotheses for the structure and geologic history of the Canadian Rockies using three new tools to an unprecedented degree: reflection seismic profiling, seismic stratigraphy, and cross-section restoration. Its stunning conclusions, including that regional detachment allowed no basement involvement in the culminations of the eastern Canadian Thrust Belt, is an example of the power and value of seismic reflection profiling coupled with cross-section restoration.

This paper showed how a very successful exploration technique could also provide important contributions to the larger scientific community. Reflection seismic profiles have been a game-changer for studies of the earth. Bally, Gordy and Stewart is one of the first demonstrations of the power of regional profiles, and its stunning results resulted in a huge demand for seismic data, which started a number of seismic consortia like COCORP (USA) and LITHOPROBE (Canada).

Google Scholar lists 888 citations for Bally, Gordy and Stewart. The hypotheses presented in this paper, along with contributions by Clint Dahlstrom, made the eastern Canadian Rockies into the type locality for thin-skinned thrust belts. As such, all thrust belts have been compared to the Canadian Rockies, and whether they are consistent with the "Canadian Thrust Belt rules".

Boyer, S. E. and D. Elliott, 1982, Thrust systems:  AAPG Bulletin, v. 66, p. 1196-1230.

Boyer and Elliott (1982) was the first paper to systematically describe and organize duplex styles and their evolution. This paper's most significant contribution is its demonstration of how the concepts explain complex field examples from the Alberta, Appalachian, and Alpine fold-thrust belts.

The paper essentially ended a long-standing controversy about whether thrusts become younger in the foreland direction (break forward) or the hinterland direction (break back) by showing that the evidence thought to favor the break-back sequence was better explained by duplex formation. They showed that structural culminations in fold-thrust belts, thought in many areas to result from basement uplifts, could be explained by duplexes that die out along strike. Finally, this paper presents the sequential evolution of a duplex in the form of a kink-band (dip-domain) style cross section. All of these interpretations have been widely adopted and now form the standard interpretations.

Duplexes are now recognized as major elements in many thrust belts. The horses within duplexes form the hydrocarbon traps in many thrust belts. This paper provides the current framework for understanding their geometry, formation and evolution. The duplex concepts and terminology in Boyer and Elliot are broad in application. They apply to virtually every thrust belt. Duplexes are now understood to be characteristic of faults in general, not just thrusts.

Dahlstrom, C.D.A., 1969, Balanced cross sections:  Canadian Journal Earth Science, v. 6, p. 743-757.

Dahlstrom (1969) was the first to define the concept of a balanced cross section and to describe how line-length restoration can be used as a method to validate an interpretation. As well as providing a practical tool for interpreters, the concept of a restored and balanced section has led to a flowering of new research, which continues today. There are now numerous methods for balancing and restoring a cross section in addition to the line-length method used by Dahlstrom, and the original 2-D methodology has been extended into 3-D.

It could be argued that prior to Dahlstrom, structural interpretation was as much art as science, and one cannot easily argue that an "artistic" interpretation is incorrect. The concept of a balanced section provides a user-independent method for testing the validity of an interpretation.
Restoration of cross sections by one method or another is now a standard best practice worldwide and is part of every structural-interpretation software. Restoration and balancing are probably taught in every undergraduate structural geology class and certainly used in any industry class. Dahlstrom is so clearly written that his exact words are frequently quoted. The concepts presented in Dahlstom apply to any structure, anywhere in the world.

Gibbs, A.D., 1984. Structural evolution of extensional basin margins: Journal of the Geological Society, v. 141, p. 609-620.

Gibbs (1984) outlined a new model for the structural development of extensional basins, including a focus on listric faulting and extensional detachments. It presented a suite of interpretative models that could be applied in extensional regimes, along with a geometric and kinematic reasoning. The models presented in Gibbs highlighted the importance of listric fault geometries and multiple detachments within extensional basin settings – these models are applied today in interpretations globally of basins. The models are used to understand basin evolution, fault kinematics etc.

Gibbs has been extensively referenced since publication in 1984. The basic principles and geometries have stood the test of time; ideas from thrust belts were applied to extensional regimes, which have since been developed into software used by industry. It is well written with a nice suite of illustrations to match.

Harding, T.P. and J. D. Lowell, 1979, Structural styles, their plate tectonic habitats, and hydrocarbons traps in petroleum provinces:  AAPG Bulletin, v. 63, p. 1016-1058.

Classifications are important because they frequently control the way we think. Harding and Lowell (1979) was the first to describe the basic structural styles relevant to hydrocarbon traps and organize them into categories based on the physical principles controlling their origins, the tectonic transport direction (boundary displacement) and the involvement or non-involvement of basement.

Prior to Harding and Lowell, styles were commonly thought of as being simply as compressional or extensional, with little appreciation of the differences in style between thin-skinned and thick-skinned structures. Classifications of structural traps were generally focused on just two, anticlinal traps and fault traps, as if all anticlines and all faults were the same.

Harding and Lowell provided the organizing principles for petroleum structural geology ever since it was published and has been generally adopted as the way to organize structural styles in general geology.

By separating structures into distinct styles, the traps are now much better understood. The connection between structural style and plate boundary type, pointed out in the paper, now makes it easier to predict the nature of the structural targets in a new basin. Placing a hydrocarbon prospect into the Harding and Lowell framework makes it much easier to choose relevant models and analogs.

 All introductory structural geology textbooks now use this classification, or something very similar. It elevated thin-skinned normal faults, wrench-faults and salt tectonics to be equivalent to the long-established categories of compressional fold-thrust belts and extensional rifts. Evidence of the situation prior to this paper is provided by the first edition of a popular structural text book that put salt domes into the sedimentary-structure chapter, along with ripple marks and cross beds. The concepts are completely general and apply everywhere. The advice given on interpretation remains relevant.

Hubbert, M. K., 1951, Mechanical basis for certain familiar geologic structures:  Geological Society America Bulletin, v. 63, p. 355-372.

Hubbert (1951) shows the value of rigorous stress analysis in the geological interpretation of faults. The paper uses the graphical Mohr diagram and Coulomb failure envelope to explain the Andersonian fault geometries. It marked a change in structural interpretation from primarily observational (geometry and strain) to quantitative prediction based on mechanical principles and stress. Hubbert shows the power of applying theory from fields outside the geosciences, in this case physics and civil engineering, to geological problems. The approach and the methods are now core concepts in areas ranging from interpreting regional fault patterns to the prediction of fractures in reservoirs.

Google Scholar lists 405 citations to this paper. The completeness and clarity of the presentation, together with the demonstrated application to the fault geometries produced in experimental sandbox models caught the attention of the geological community and helped make an understanding of stress an essential part of structural geology curricula. Moreover, this paper served as an introduction to Hafner's (1951) paper "Stress Distributions and Faulting", which has been cited 383 times and immediately followed this paper in the issue of GSA Bulletin that published the papers.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of the impact of this paper is that structural geology textbooks published prior to and contemporaneously with this paper did not include the Mohr diagram or the Coulomb failure envelope (e.g., Billings, Structural Geology 2nd edition, 1954). Once the message of this paper was assimilated, every introductory structure text has included them starting with deSitter, Structural Geology, 1956.

Hubbert has been applied globally in efforts to (1) interpret fractures in the field and subsurface, (2) understand how to interpret analog experiments, and (3) predict fracture orientations during fracture stimulation. Hubbeert covers difficult mechanical concepts with remarkably simple prose and admirably simple diagrams and remains an appropriate introduction to the stress analysis of faults.

Isacks. B., J. Oliver, and L. Sykes, 1968, Seismology and the new global tectonics:  Journal of Geophysical Research, v. 73, p. 5855-5899.

Isacks, Oliver and Sykes (1968) used a wide-ranging array of seismological data to test the new hypothesis of plate tectonics, and found that "there appears to be no evidence from seismology that cannot eventually be reconciled with the new global tectonics in some form."

Prior to the 1960, the lack of a widely accepted, unifying theory of tectonics resulted the compartmentalization of many geological and geophysical fields. Isacks, Oliver and Sykes correctly predicted that the unifying concepts of plate tectonics, what the authors called the new global tectonics, would bring together specialists of many different fields and accentuate the "interplay between seismology and the many other disciplines of geology". The resulting interdisciplinary research virtually created what we now know as geoscience.

Isacks, Oliver and Sykes was one of the most influential papers to combine research into plate tectonics while also elucidating and predicting the important role that seismology would play in the geosciences going forward. Moreover, it gave the geosciences an excellent model of visionary scientific method by openly trying to falsify the congruence of plate tectonics with all elements of seismology and many elements of geology. The paper is full of questions about the nature and consequences of plate tectonics, and poses multiple hypotheses for these questions without overly pushing any specific hypotheses. In this way, Isacks, Oliver and Sykes provided fertile ground for many interdisciplinary research projects that continue to this day.

As of 2015, this paper has been cited nearly 1500 times. It is a standard part of collections of papers that document the development of plate tectonics. This paper provided an overwhelmingly positive test of the new global tectonics and in doing so, provided vital support for our current tectonic paradigm for the earth – plate tectonics.

McKenzie, D., 1978, Some remarks on the development of sedimentary basins: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 40, p. 25-32.

McKinze (1978) provides a physical explanation for the formation of sedimentary basins. It presents a model for rift formation, integrating plate tectonics with lithospheric stretching models, sedimentation etc. which has global application to all rift basins. It underpins the modern understanding of continental rift basins and rifted continental margins, exploring the relationship between stretching, subsidence and thermal structure. It is one of the most cited papers in Earth Science.

Google Scholar suggests greater than 3300 citations. The paper is applied to basin modeling in petroleum areas where understanding thermal subsidence and rifting evolution and mechanisms are important.

Rich, J. L., 1934, Mechanics of low-angle overthrust thrust faulting as illustrated by Cumberland thrust block, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee:  AAPG Bulletin, v. 18, p. 1584-1596.

Rich (1934) launched the theory of fault-bend folding by using regional relationships in the thin-skinned thrust belt of the southern Appalachians to support the hypothesis that major thrust faults alternate between flats with bed-parallel slip (most commonly in shales) and ramps with bed-oblique slip (most commonly in more resistant layers). The ramp-flat geometries of fault-bend folding Rich proposed have been successfully applied worldwide.  In addition, Rich correctly saw the crucial petroleum applications in the fact that subsidiary faults and fold need not extend below the major thrust. Thus, surface structures in thin-skinned thrust belts do not necessarily extend to the depth targeted by petroleum exploration.

Rich contributed one of the three major modes of fault-related folding to the paradigm change linking fault slip to folding that occurred in the latter half of the 20th century and provides the framework for adding time to our thinking about the formation of thrust belts. Eventually, this was expressed as the method of balancing, where structural interpretations need to be consistent with both geologic geometries and be restorable to a possible initial configuration. Rich provides one of the first descriptions of how the hanging-wall structures can be used to interpret the geometry of the underlying fault.

In addition, Rich correctly saw that lithology controlled the mode of thrusting, and that the effects of lithology and fluids would have profound impact on rock strength.

Rosendahl, B. R., 1987, Architecture of continental rifts with special reference to East Africa: Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Science, v. 15, p. 445-503.

Rosenthal (1987) was the first paper to synthesize the architecture of rift basins using the evidence provided by multiple seismic reflection profiles across entire rift basins. It shows convincingly that assemblages of facing or opposed half grabens that are linked by accommodation zones form a complete rift. The classic oil-field-scale fault blocks are seen to be the internal deformation within the basin-scale rollover into a listric master fault.

At the time this paper was written, rifts were generally thought to be roughly symmetrical in profile and bounded by faults that zigzag in map view. The idea that rifts were formed by relatively straight half grabens linked by transform faults, like mid-ocean ridges, had also been proposed, but no evidence had been published. The paper is important for both structural and stratigraphic interpretation with concepts that apply to nearly every extensional terrane worldwide, including passive margins.

Rosenthal publishes the first seismic evidence that a half graben, bounded by a curved fault concave to the downthrown side, is the fundamental building block of the East African rifts and logically of extensional terranes elsewhere. The paper shows that accommodation-zone geometries between half grabens are the key to rift-profile interpretation and how sea-floor spreading, by splitting the profiles at different places, leads to the different structural styles recognized in supposedly matching plate margins.

The prior concepts of rift geometry were either full grabens with zigzag map patterns or straight half grabens offset and linked by transform faults. The concept of accommodation zones formed between overlapping half grabens and having a variety of predictable geometries was a paradigm change. Rosenthal presented the idea that rifts consist of half grabens linked by accommodation zones is the foundation of the modern interpretation of both the structure and stratigraphy of rift basins and passive margins in general.

Suppe, J., 1983, Geometry and kinematics of fault-bend folding:  American Journal Science, v. 283, p. 684-721.

Suppe (1983) was the first to derive and apply quantitative relationships for the prediction of the geometry and evolution of geologic structures. The paper is focused on thrust belts but also shows that the theory works for extensional folds. This paper helped make structural prediction into a quantitative science. The method is now widely used in industry and academia.

 Prior to this paper the only quantitative modeling of folded structures directly applicable to field data was cross-section construction using parallel-fold geometry, i.e., circular-arc or dip-domain folding. Quantitatively linking the observed dip changes of the hanging wall to the underlying fault geometry was revolutionary. The concept of quantitative predictive modeling proposed in Suppe applies to any structure. The specific models proposed for thrust belts can be applied in many thrust belts worldwide.

This paper is cited in practically every paper since written on thrust belt interpretation. The basic idea that structures can be interpreted with geometric-kinematic models is the starting point for a multitude of later quantitative models for interpreting a wide variety of structures. The approaches of this paper are implemented in some form in almost all structural-interpretation software. The derivations at the heart of the paper are presented step-by-step and explained so that they can be followed by an interested reader. The necessary relationships have been graphed so that they are easily usable for practical applications. The examples are presented step-by-step as well, so they can be easily followed and used as tutorials in how to apply the core concepts.

White, I. C., 1885, The geology of natural gas: Science, v. 5, p. 521–522.

White (1885) is evidently the first paper to clearly propose that hydrocarbons were found in traps, and provided evidence that anticlines formed traps for gas.  

Prior to White it was believed that natural gas could be found anywhere as long as a well was drilled deep enough. The concept of a trap was entirely new. The paper also suggested the need for an organic-rich source bed and a suitable reservoir. In two pages it is able to clearly present the foundations of petroleum geology.

The concept of the hydrocarbon trap is one of the foundations of petroleum geology. Anticlines remain one of the major trap types. This paper showed that geology was important in exploring for hydrocarbons, arguably being the real origin of petroleum geology.

White, N. and D. McKenzie, 1988, Formation of the" steer's head" geometry of sedimentary basins by differential stretching of the crust and mantle: Geology, v. 16, p. 250-253.

It White, McKenzie (1988) presented a model explaining the onlap of sediments at basin margins, without the requirement for sea level rise. The paper presented a thermal subsidence and two layer lithospheric stretching model to explain the formation of large basins with 'steers head' geometries.

White, McKenzie provides an explanation for a mechanism to allow onlap of sediments without recourse to sea level rise or an increase in flexural rigidity of the continental lithosphere. The model presented has global application to rift basins.

White, McKenzie is well cited and is often core reading for undergraduate teaching courses that include basin dynamics. The thesis of the paper is applied to basin modeling in petroleum areas where understanding thermal subsidence and contemporaneous sedimentation is important.

Wilcox, R. E., T. P. Harding, and D. R. Seely, 1973, Basic wrench tectonics: AAPG Bulletin, v. 57, p. 74-96.

Wilcox , Harding and Seely (1973) explains the progressive development of faults and folds associated with basin-scale strike-slip faulting by showing their match with experimental models of clay-cake deformation above strike-slip faults. It has a broad global application to sedimentary basins that have strike-slip on underlying reactivated basement faults, and thus, it can be applied to all cratonic and marginal basins and provides the basis for today's models of strike-slip tectonics, including our current understanding of transpressional and transtensional deformation.

The paper's excellent accessibility changed the way many geoscientists think about strike-slip structural associations and has been cited more than 1000 times. The paper is so easily understood - no in-depth background in structural geology is needed - even concepts like left-slip and right-slip are clearly explained.

Wilcox , Harding and Seely's comparison of 16 basin-scale maps of faults and folds with 18 photographs of clay-cake experiments made their correlation quite obvious. The paper's accessibility combined with its focus on the petroleum consequences of wrench tectonics attracted a wide readership and provided a better understanding of earth deformation.

Beyond this paper's accessibility to all geoscientists, it showed that progressive deformation and associated rotations can explain much of the complexity of wrench tectonics without relying on multiple orders of structures as was previously proposed and currently discredited using modern rock mechanics. It also helped provide a wider acceptance of the experimental modeling of earth structure as a way to look at the time element of progressive deformation.

Williams, G. D., C. M. Powell, and M. A. Cooper, 1989, Geometry and kinematics of inversion tectonics, in M. A. Cooper, and G. D. Williams, eds., Inversion Tectonics: Geological Society Special Publication 44, p. 3-15.

This paper presents the concept of an inversion structure and outlines the evolution and typical geometries produced from "inverting" a growth normal fault by later reverse slip. The entire volume 44 is responsible for introducing this concept to the world beyond the North Sea and nearby countries where it originated. The nominated paper is a good overview of the concept and has nearly 400 citations in Google Scholar.

Previously this structural style was unrecognized, recognized as a stratigraphic anomaly, or thought to be the result of strike-slip juxtaposition. After this paper, the style was widely seen as being common. What was once seen as anomalous stratigraphic thickening along certain reverse faults has become recognized as a very common structural style.

Most sedimentary basins begin with extension and normal faulting. It is remarkable how many of them have been affected by later shortening to form inversion structures. The evidence that extensional basins like the North Sea have been subsequently compressed was a big change in thinking.

Yielding, G., B. Freeman, and D. T. Needham, 1997, Quantitative fault seal prediction: AAPG Bulletin, v. 81, p. 897-917.

Yielding, Freeman and Needham (1997) established the use of shale gouge ratio to predict fault seal. It provided a method to predict fault seal capability that was then tested against well data. The paper is based on a simple conceptual model, which has been refined and re-developed. It is used extensively in industry and the concept continues to be incorporated into reservoir modeling techniques – grid refinement around faults etc. In some ways it can be thought of as having transcended geoscience to engineering – influencing this field as well.

Yielding, Freeman and Needham has been extensively referenced since publication, currently c. 600 citations and has been utilized globally. The paper led the way for development of various fault seal predictors – clay smear etc and has influenced reservoir modeling through conceptual input into the use of transmissibility multipliers.

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