Top 100 Landmark Papers Siliciclastic Sedimentology

Top 10 Landmark Papers in Siliciclastic Sedimentology

John Armentrout (Chair)

Donna Anderson, James Coleman, Bob Dalrymple, Jeff Faber, Gary Hampton, Gideon Giwa, Chris Heine, Maria Lorente, Kay Pitts, Numo Pimentel, Bob Shoup, John Snedden, Mike Sweet


Literature on siliciclastic sedimentology is voluminous.To facilitate our effort in identifying AAPG Landmark Papers, we have chosen to focus on those facies that historically are the reservoirs with the largest resource volume.John W. Snedden (Snedden, 2003, unpublished data) shared an inventory of Estimated Ultimate Recovery (EUR) Total Volume Reserves distributed by depositional facies.In most cases, we have selected Landmark Papers representative of the most prolific facies in order of EUR volumes from that data source, recognizing that continuing discoveries are likely to modify the ranking.

Landmark Papers

Miall, A. D., 1985, Architectural-element analysis: a new method of facies analysis applied to fluvial deposits: Earth Science Reviews, v. 22, p. 261-308.

In this paper, Miall introduced a fundamentally new way of looking at the architecture of channelized deposits. Although applied specifically to the deposits of rivers, the concepts have been extended to apply to all types of channelized environments, including tidal and turbidity-current channel systems. This approach provides a powerful methodology to reconstruct the paleogeomorphology of the channel-bar elements that comprise these systems, thereby leading to a better understanding of the geometry of the fine-scale lithologic units (sandstone and mudstone layers) that define the flow units in the subsurface.  As a result, this methodology has wide application in both research and applied aspects of sedimentary geology. It is now almost impossible to undertake a detailed analysis of channel deposits, and especially of fluvial deposits, without at least some application of the concepts outlined in by Miall in this paper. It represented a dramatic change in the way that sedimentary successions were viewed: rather than simply recording one-dimensional vertical succession, the approach was fundamentally three-dimensional in perspective. It presaged a major move to a more 3D way of viewing the sedimentary record that has had a major impact on efforts to optimize recovery in petroleum reservoirs.

Miall's architectural-element paper has been cited 1594 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Galloway, W. E., 1975, Process framework for describing morphological and stratigraphic evolution of deltaic depositional systems, in M. L.Broussard, ed., Deltas- models for exploration: Houston Geological Society, p. 87-98.

Written relatively early in his long, productive career, this is one of Galloway's most widely cited papers as it includes the now famous ternary diagram, categorizing deltas into river-, tide-, and wave-dominated types (Galloway's Figure 3).  Galloway proposed this tripartite system and used it to classify modern deltas.  Subsequent workers applied it to ancient systems, and the classification became a fundamental component of academic training in sedimentology.  Galloway acknowledged that sediment input type and quantity, delta platform type, and other factors had significant influence on depositional geometry and facies type, but emphasized that the amount and type of energy in the receiving basin was critical to ultimate reservoir quality.

Galloway's delta classification has continued to provide a practical framework model for sand-body geometry in deltaic successions, which are excellent reservoirs, often are self-sealing, and sometimes self-sourcing from transported organics.  The paper was published at a time when exploration was conducted largely by drilling structures, with limited seismic data of generally limited quality in the pre-digital age.  Seismic reflection profile geometries have sustained the appropriateness of Galloway's ternary classification, especially in the 3D seismic attribute domain. 

Galloway's 1985 paper has been cited 773 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Fisk, H. N., E. McFarland, C. R. Kolb, and L. J. Wilbert, 1954, Sedimentary framework of the modern Mississippi Delta: Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, v. 24, p. 76-99.

The Fisk et al. (1954) publication is a key framework paper for describing and interpreting depositional elements of deltas.  The Mississippi delta is a key example, because of its size, ease of access, and rapid process rates resulting in thick accumulations enhancing the geometric recognition of depositional elements.  Due to this publication, the Mississippi River delta became the archetype of all fluvial-dominated deltas.  Much of the paper was based on cores obtained during Fisk's work at the Mississippi River Commission in the 1940's.  Fisk along with McFarland and additional co-authors, published this paper after Fisk moved to Humble Oil Research (later Exxon).

A major contribution of this paper was the scale of facies analysis.  Fisk et al. (1954) revealed the large-scale system, where rivers meet the sea with the complex interaction of sedimentary processes.  For the first time, we read of sub-environments like stream mouth bar (bar finger), delta front, pro-delta, distributary channel-fills, crevasse splays, and marsh (Fisk et al., Figure 1).  Cores and aerial photographs complimented the detailed written descriptions.  The grain-size measurements and surficial sediment distributions were explained by consideration of the environment of deposition, clearly parting ways with traditional analyses focused at the scale of texture and grain orientation.  The identification of deltaic depositional elements is now facilitated by higher resolution 3D seismic volumes and attribute extractions, increasing confidence in pre-drill recoverable resource estimates.

The Fisk et al. (1954) paper has been cited 333 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Bouma, A. H., 1962. Sedimentology of some flysch deposits: a graphic approach to facies interpretation: Elsevier, Amsterdam: 168 p.

Arnold Bouma (1962) introduced the first turbidite facies model and possibly the first predictive model in sedimentology, based on his doctoral dissertation on the Annot Sandstone in the Maritime Alps of France.  The model divides "classic" or medium-grained, graded-sands deposited by a waning turbidity current into an idealized sequence of five intervals (Ta-Te), each with distinct sedimentary structures. Not all divisions of the Bouma sequence are always present.  In fact, later field investigation by Bouma and others documented that only 5% of individual Annot Sandstone beds in Bouma's original study sections had all five divisions stacked in vertical succession.  This clearly demonstrated the lateral variation in depositional processes along a waning-flow transect within a depositing sand bed.

Bouma's composite model, linking graded sandstones and turbidity currents, provided a facies model for turbidite researchers to amplify, modify and revise with more appropriate divisions for different sediment flow densities, tectonic settings, grain-size, and so on.  Illustrations and descriptions of Bouma's divisions are discussed and referenced in almost every sedimentology textbook.  The original model and subsequent modifications are widely used in the petroleum industry and academic studies. The sequence is so closely identified with Bouma that it became known as the "Bouma Sequence."

Bouma's original paper has been cited in more than 2960 papers (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Mutti, E. and Ricci-Lucci, F., 1972. Le torbiditi dell'Appennino settentrionale: introduzione all'analisi di facies: Memorie della Societa Geologica Italiana 11, p. 161-199.  English translation by Nilsen, T. H., 1978. Turbidites of the northern Apennines: introduction to facies analysis: International Geology Review v. 20, p. 125-166.

In 1972, Mutti and Ricci-Lucci introduced a deep-sea fan model based on outcrop studies of ancient basin-filling gravity-flow strata exposed in the northern Apennines and south-central Pyrenees. The model subdivided a fan system into canyon, inner-, middle- and outer-fan facies associations passing distally into basin-plain strata. The model strongly emphasized the similarity with delta systems focusing on distributary channels and prograding outer-fan sandstone lobes.  Tor Nilsen's excellent translation made Mutti's and Ricci-Lucci's excellent work available to a global geoscience community.

The fan-model of Mutti and Ricci-Lucci (1972) provided a well-documented and easily understood framework that was the foundation for submarine-fan research and related models through the 1970's and 1980's. It is still widely referenced and contrasted with newer models, most of which represent refinements or elaborations of the original model.  High resolution images from oceanographic surveys and attribute extractions from 3D seismic volumes both confirm and improve the initial interpretations formulated by Mutti and Ricci-Lucci's landmark paper.

This paper has been cited in more than 1138 articles and books (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Curray, J. R., F. J. Emmel, and P. J. S. Crampton, 1967, Holocene history of a strand plain, lagoonal coast, Nayarit, Mexico, in A. Ayala-Castañares, and F. B. Phleger, eds., Coastal lagoons, a symposium: UNAM-UNESCO, Mexico, Ciudad Universitario: p. 63-100.

Curry et al. (1969) provided a detailed description of the Nayarit Pacific Coast of Mexico, a wave-dominated shoreline system with long, continuous beach ridges that have prograded seaward since the pace of Holocene sea-level slowed about 5 kya.  Documentation of the progradational history was facilitated by vibracores collected in several shore-normal transects.  This is one of the first papers to describe the architecture of strand-plain systems versus lagoonal/barrier island systems earlier documented by Shell's cores of Galveston Island. 

The Curray et al. (1969) research and model for the Nayarit Coast has served as a modern analog for the expansive, highly progradational shoreface systems of the Western US Cretaceous Seaway, the Middle Jurassic of the North Sea and other important petroleum provinces.  Figures from their classic cross section paper are still being reproduced in textbooks (e.g. Plint, 2010), and was ahead of its time in showing the stratal architecture associated with the turn-around from transgressive barrier-lagoon to regressive strandplain sedimentation.

This paper has been cited 324 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Plint, A. G., 1988, Sharp-based shoreface sequences and "offshore bars" in the Cardium Formation of Alberta: their relationship to relative changes in sea level, in C. K. Wilgus, B. S. Hastings, H. W. Posamentier, J. C. Van Wagoner, C. A. Ross, and C. G. St. C.Kendall, eds., Sea-level changes-an integrated approach: SEPM Special Publication No. 42, p. 357-370.

Shoaling-upward shoreface successions consist of high porosity and permeability sands due to the sorting energy of waves, and are present in almost every sedimentary basin of all ages.  Plint (1988) provided the first comprehensive insight into the stratigraphic organization of the shallow-marine successions in which such important potential reservoir sandstones occur. His paper showed how changes in relative sea level cause lateral migration of the shoreline, leading to predictable variations in the character of the sandbodies: gradationally based successions characterize normal progradation, whereas sharp-based successions form during periods of relative sea-level fall, a condition later referred to as "forced regression". In some cases, long-distances of seaward displacement of the shoreline, coupled with erosion during transgression, form shore-parallel sandbodies that are isolated within mudstones; this provided a powerful model to explain the previously enigmatic "offshore bars" that are prolific reservoirs in many basins.

A significant strength of the Plint (1988) paper is the regional scale of the analysis (44,000 km2) and the seamless integration of an extensive data base of well-logs (nearly 1000) and cores (120), thereby making it highly robust and directly applicable to exploration and production activities.

The stratigraphic models developed in this paper (Plint's Figures 7 and 11) represent one of the first facies-scale, high-resolution applications of sequence-stratigraphic concepts to shallow-marine successions, allowing them to be subdivided into genetically significant bodies (termed "parasequences" by  Van Wagoner et al. (1988), SEPM Special Publication 42). These models, which represent the subsurface extension of ideas embodied in papers such as Curray et al. (1969), have been widely reproduced in textbooks and are now fundamental knowledge for practicing petroleum geologists and sedimentologists.

Plint's 1988 paper has 420 citations (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Glennie, K. W., 1972, Permian Rotliegendes of northwest Europe interpreted in light of modern desert sedimentary environments: AAPG Bulletin, v. 56, p. 1048-1071.

Glennie's 1972 paper had two different and distinct contributions: First, 'Timing is everything': this paper was published at the very onset of exploration in the North Sea and provided a written and pictorial description of what was proved to be one of the major reservoirs in the North Sea Basin, the Rotliegendes. What makes this paper special is that it was published in 1972 when reservoir data, especially maps, was categorically not shared between oil companies, yet alone published. The proprietary nature of reservoir data was a closely kept secret as companies prepared for the next round of lease sales. This paper provided regional maps and cross sections showing the facies distribution of the Rotliegendes aeolian reservoir. Although general in nature, these maps formed the basis of a geological understanding that has been tweaked and modified ever since. 

Second, this paper was one of the first to describe the facies and reservoir properties of an aeolian reservoir (Rotliegendes) and relate the reservoir facies to modern aeolian environments. Using core and dipmeter data from wells, together with trench and aerial photographs from the modern, this paper demonstrated the power of modern analogs for explaining facies distributions at reservoir scale; thus developing a predictive model for the distribution of the high quality dune facies. The depositional model for the Rotliegendes, especially the lateral facies changes from dune to sabkha and fluvial environments proposed in this paper, has been reflected in all subsequent work on the Rotliegendes and has considerable value for other aeolian systems; for example the Permian aeolian Unayzah reservoir in Saudi Arabia, first recognized in 1992.

Prior to Glennie's 1970 book 'Desert Sedimentary Environments' most if not all papers dealing with aeolian sediments were process oriented (dune classifications and sedimentary structures), in part, motivated by the need to drive on the North African dune sands in WW2. Gas was first discovered in the Rotliegendes in 1959, but it was 1963 that the Groningen gas field showed its true value; the Viking field was discovered in 1964 and the race was on. At this time, not much was known about aeolian reservoirs industry wide, so Glennie was tasked by Shell to study Desert Sedimentary Environments and put them into a subsurface reservoir framework. The assignment of characterizing desert environments and building a subsurface predictive reservoir model took place over a very short period of time. Glennie was truly a pioneer of aeolian reservoir characterization and his 1972 paper on the Rotliegendes, published in the AAPG Bulletin, was a 'landmark' contribution for the North Sea Rotliegendes, as well as other aeolian reservoirs around the world, for example the Upper Jurassic Norphlet Sand reservoirs of the Mobile Field offshore Alabama, and the recent deepwater Gulf of Mexico discovery at Appomattox Field.

Glennie's (1972) paper on the Rotliegendes has been cited more than 227 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Dalrymple, R. W., B. A. Zaitlin, and R. Boyd, 1992, Estuarine facies models: conceptual basis and stratigraphic implications: Journal of Sedimentary Petrology, v. 62, p. 1130-1146.

Dalrymple et al. (1992) provided the first comprehensive model for transgressive estuarine depositional systems.  Before the appearance of this paper, the general knowledge of such systems was fragmentary, and there were very few reports of such deposits in ancient successions.  Following publication of Dalrymple et al. (1992), these estuarine facies were documented much more frequently.  In the paper, estuaries were explicitly linked with incised valleys.  Thus, the paper also played an important role in the development of high-resolution sequence stratigraphic models for incised valley fill facies, and its application to both outcrop and subsurface examples.  In fact, the estuarine facies models presented in this paper were the first facies models in which relative sea-level changes were an integral part of the model.

This paper essentially defined transgressive estuaries as a coherent depositional system for the first time.  As a result, workers had the conceptual tools needed to recognize them in ancient successions.  This, in turn, allowed workers to identify the presence of incised valleys, and to understand the architecture of the valley-filling deposits.  In many ways, the advent of incised-valley/estuarine plays came into its own after this paper appeared.

Dalrymple et al. (1992) is frequently cited and the key figures have been reproduced in every sedimentology textbook published since 1992.  Yoshida (2008; Getting started in sequence stratigraphy: a compendium of influential papers. AAPG / Datapages - Getting Started Series 11) cited this paper as one of the fundamental papers in sequence stratigraphy.

Dalrymple et al. (1992) has been cited 1208 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Asquith, D. O., 1970, Depositional topography and major marine environments, Late Cretaceous, Wyoming: AAPG Bulletin, v 54, p. 1184-1224.

Asquith (1970) presented a geomorphic and chronostratigraphic perspective on interpretation of stratal geometries in shallow-marine strata.  His examples of well-log correlation through shallow-marine shelfal strata, demonstrated the clinoform morphology and associated relationships for stratigraphic trap development, that anticipated (and was vindicated by) later use of seismic data for sequence stratigraphic analysis. Asquith's paper demonstrated that correlation and lithologic prediction should follow geomorphic time lines rather than lithostratigraphic boundaries, impacting on the search for stratigraphic traps and on reservoir characterization.

Today, the application of Asquith's approach is ubiquitous, and applies to all shallow-marine rocks (in fact, the principle applies to sedimentary rocks deposited in all environments). It is now universally applied as part of sequence-stratigraphic practice, but Asquith's contribution predates publication of work by Vail and co-workers and is notable for its use of wireline logs.  Wireline-log correlation prior to Asquith's work was governed by lithostratigraphic boundaries, essentially facies correlation of diachronous depositional environments, rather than of laterally coeval depositional environments. Asquith's case study, and the methodology that it entails, demonstrated the value of a more sophisticated approach as a tool to search for subtle stratigraphic traps and interpret stratal relationships for reservoir characterization. This ultimately contributed to the paradigm shift of sequence stratigraphy, as well as improved reservoir stratigraphic zonations prior to the advent of widespread 3D seismic data.  This was a key conceptual contribution to the exploration and development of paralic reservoirs in the onshore USA and globally.

This 1970 paper by Asquith has been cited 269 times (Google Scholar, 5/2016).

Quick Links