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Vail's Ideas Were a 'Breakthrough'

Theory Caused a 'Sea Change' in Thought

When Peter Vail presented his theory linking stratigraphic interpretation with global sea level changes at the AAPG Annual Meeting in Dallas in 1975, it was akin to a shot heard 'round the world in the geology profession.

Vail's hypothesis was a unifying concept for stratigraphy: Sedimentary basins filled with different sediments, he theorized, but the sediments were deposited in an episodic manner by global sea level changes.

That public pronouncement was at once lauded and accepted by many members of the scientific community and decried by others.

In fact, the ensuing controversy and scientific discussion among E&P industry stalwarts and academicians continues in some circles even today, providing apt testimony that this was a man on the cutting edge of research.

Unfazed by the naysayers and confident in his convictions, Vail spent a whole career furthering the case for seismic stratigraphy, which revolutionized the geology practitioners' view of stratigraphy and the way oil and gas exploration is conducted.

Given his profound impact on the profession of geology, it comes as no surprise to Vail's many former colleagues and others in the geology community that he has been selected to receive the 2003 Sidney Powers Memorial Award, AAPG's highest honor.

Long held in high esteem by the association, Vail previously was awarded Honorary Membership in AAPG. He also has been the recipient of the AAPG President's Award and the Matson Award for best papers.

Other industry-based society awards received during his illustrious career include:

  • Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG).
  • Individual Achievement Award from the Offshore Technology Conference.
  • Twenhofel Medal of the Society of Sedimentary Geology (SEPM).
  • Honorary Membership in SEG.

These are but a few of the plethora of honors bestowed upon this intrepid scientist who also has played a key role on various industry, government and academic steering committees and has been honored by universities at home and abroad in recognition of his work.

He has been a prolific contributor to professional literature, having authored more than 60 publications appearing in journals, textbooks and guidebooks.

You Say Seismic, I Say Sequence

Like so many other geologists, Vail developed a love of the outdoors when he was a young boy who enjoyed camping and fishing. But it was not until high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts that he became interested in geology after taking his first geology class.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in geology from Dartmouth in 1952, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he was awarded a teaching assistantship for two years and a Shell fellowship.

Image Caption

Peter Vail (with Gail Ashley) holds the William H. Twenhofel Medal, presented to him in 1992 by SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology, in recognition of "outstanding contributions to sedimentary geology." It is SEPM's highest award.

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When Peter Vail presented his theory linking stratigraphic interpretation with global sea level changes at the AAPG Annual Meeting in Dallas in 1975, it was akin to a shot heard 'round the world in the geology profession.

Vail's hypothesis was a unifying concept for stratigraphy: Sedimentary basins filled with different sediments, he theorized, but the sediments were deposited in an episodic manner by global sea level changes.

That public pronouncement was at once lauded and accepted by many members of the scientific community and decried by others.

In fact, the ensuing controversy and scientific discussion among E&P industry stalwarts and academicians continues in some circles even today, providing apt testimony that this was a man on the cutting edge of research.

Unfazed by the naysayers and confident in his convictions, Vail spent a whole career furthering the case for seismic stratigraphy, which revolutionized the geology practitioners' view of stratigraphy and the way oil and gas exploration is conducted.

Given his profound impact on the profession of geology, it comes as no surprise to Vail's many former colleagues and others in the geology community that he has been selected to receive the 2003 Sidney Powers Memorial Award, AAPG's highest honor.

Long held in high esteem by the association, Vail previously was awarded Honorary Membership in AAPG. He also has been the recipient of the AAPG President's Award and the Matson Award for best papers.

Other industry-based society awards received during his illustrious career include:

  • Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG).
  • Individual Achievement Award from the Offshore Technology Conference.
  • Twenhofel Medal of the Society of Sedimentary Geology (SEPM).
  • Honorary Membership in SEG.

These are but a few of the plethora of honors bestowed upon this intrepid scientist who also has played a key role on various industry, government and academic steering committees and has been honored by universities at home and abroad in recognition of his work.

He has been a prolific contributor to professional literature, having authored more than 60 publications appearing in journals, textbooks and guidebooks.

You Say Seismic, I Say Sequence

Like so many other geologists, Vail developed a love of the outdoors when he was a young boy who enjoyed camping and fishing. But it was not until high school at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts that he became interested in geology after taking his first geology class.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in geology from Dartmouth in 1952, he enrolled at Northwestern University, where he was awarded a teaching assistantship for two years and a Shell fellowship.

While at Northwestern, Vail had the invaluable experience of studying under the famed professorial trio: William Krumbein, Laurence Sloss and Edward Dapples. At the time, Sloss was developing his theories on continent-wide sequences, and Vail credits Sloss with triggering his interest in what would become the focus of his career.

The year 1956 was a particularly memorable one in the course of Vail's life journey. He left Northwestern armed with his master's and doctoral degrees, married his longtime sweetheart Carolyn, and began his Exxon career as a research geologist with the research division of Carter Oil Company. This was a predecessor company to Exxon Production Research where he ultimately advanced to the highest technical position: senior research scientist.

It was at Exxon during the 1960s and 1970s that Vail developed the concepts of seismic stratigraphy along with several of his colleagues.

"Pete's ideas evolved naturally from his first pioneering work on the importance of stratal surfaces in rocks as geologic time lines," wrote Robert Mitchum, a longtime friend and former Exxon colleague. "He soon recognized the cyclic occurrence of bundles of strata he called sequences in well logs, seismic reflections and outcrops.

"Observing that sequence boundaries appear synchronous globally, he postulated that cyclic eustatic sea level changes are major controls on stratigraphy, along with basin tectonics and sediment supply," Mitchum said. "This realization led to the development of eustatic cycle charts.

"Pete's ideas on the unifying paradigm of eustatic cycles are probably as close to an original 'break-through' concept as most of us are privileged to witness.

"His worldwide experience with Exxon's exploration groups honed the original concept into an immensely practical tool in hydrocarbon exploration," Mitchum said, "and provides a logical framework in which all geoscientists can build a realistic, predictive stratigraphic tool for analyzing sediments at the seismic or outcrop scale."

These concepts were published in 1977 in AAPG Memoir 26, which was the first publication on seismic stratigraphy in the public domain and remains one of AAPG's classic "best sellers."

By 1978, the field of seismic stratigraphy had advanced to allow interpretation of sequences in well logs and outcrops, as well as seismic data. This broadening of interpretation beyond seismic data led to the name change to sequence stratigraphy, according to Mitchum.

Humble Beginnings

The road leading to Vail's now-legendary status was not always a smooth one.

Early-on in his career, he and several colleagues developed a technique of correlating well log marker horizons, which they called pattern correlation of well logs.

"We recognized different patterns and published this in a research report at Exxon," Vail said. "Then one of the interpreters at Exxon told me you could see all those patterns on seismic data. When he showed them to me in his office, I decided I had to learn something about geophysics — so I transferred to the geophysics section against the advice of my supervisors.

"I didn't realize the geophysical research there was all theoreticians," he said, "so I ended up in a group of mathematical theoreticians.

"Anyway, I went on and developed a project," he continued, "where I was able to determine seismic reflection cycles following a pattern of geological time lines and not formations, which was the general thought of the day."

Prior to his revelation, it was believed that seismic reflections follow massive time-transgressional formation boundaries where the strong impedances occur. When Vail determined that reflections follow the detailed bedding patterns on the real physical surfaces in the rocks, it marked the discovery of the major underlying principle of seismic stratigraphy.

When he presented his findings, however, even the people in the company didn't believe it.

"I presented this theory at a research meeting, and the head of Humble research cracked jokes, making fun of me for thinking this." Vail said. "He said the reflections must be bouncing off the backs of fossils."

"Despite the negative criticism he often encountered, Pete persevered almost single-handedly in showing the relationship of seismic reflection patterns to chronostratigraphy," Mitchum wrote.

"This was a 'Eureka' event for Pete, because it showed that seismic data was the tool for putting stratigraphy into a geologic time framework for mapping."

He 'Changed How People Think'

Vail retired from Exxon in 1986 after 30 years of service. That same year, he was appointed the W. Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceanography at Rice University, a position he held until becoming emeritus in 2001.

He continued to work toward the refinement and further understanding of sequence stratigraphic techniques while at Rice, where he supervised and inspired numerous students.

During his tenure, he took a one-year sabbatical in Paris to study the sequence stratigraphy of European basins and to revise and document the eustatic cycle chart first constructed years earlier.

Vail's dynamic work and its impact on the practice of stratigraphy are evidenced in the efforts of geologists worldwide.

Paul Weimer, Bruce D. Benson Endowed Chair professor at University of Colorado and AAPG treasurer, wrote that while touring as Esso Australia Distinguished Lecturer, he was struck by one overriding observation:

"Even on a different continent, all of these earth scientists approached their stratigraphic work — outcrop, wireline logs, seismic interpretation — using the principles and workflow that Peter Vail first defined in the 1977 landmark publication AAPG Memoir 26.

"Most of modern stratigraphic thought, academic and applied, is organized around the concepts generated from Pete's research. He simply has changed how people think and, more importantly, how they work on a daily basis in the broad field of stratigraphy and applied geology."

Kudos for this man whose ideas instigated a whole new era in stratigraphy extend beyond his professional accomplishments.

"Like so many others, I am an admirer of Pete, the humble human being," wrote Albert Bally, Harry Carothers Wiess Professor Emeritus at Rice and himself a Sidney Powers medalist.

"He has been recognized by his former colleagues at Exxon, by our faculty and, above all, by his many students here at Rice for being a patient listener to people with opposing views, for modifying his views in the face of new evidence, for generously recognizing and crediting his co-workers and simply for being a 'hell of a nice guy,'" Bally said.

"With all this, it is important to realize that all his former co-workers clearly recognize him as their inspiring leader."

And For His Next Step …

Vail's retirement ceremony from Rice was of a magnitude befitting someone who has achieved such revered status — and it appears to have kick-started a whole new career endeavor.

Exxon and Rice collaborated to host what was dubbed a Vail Fest. The event included three days of technical talks and another day of the honoree's former students giving talks on their current work.

"They said a lot of nice things about me," Vail noted. "Then my kids said if you're so smart, why don't you find us some oil.

"I thought that was a good idea," he said, "so that's what I'm trying to do now."

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