Salt of the Earth

Mark Rowan: Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award

Mark G. Rowan, one of two recipients of this year’s Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award, was more than just a little bit surprised about his selection – as much for being considered as for winning.

“I was told that it was quite competitive this year,” said Rowan, “but that one of the things that ultimately got me over the line was that I have managed to do and publish all this research despite not having been in academia for several decades now.”

Rowan received the honor for “his outstanding contributions to research on salt tectonics, fold-thrust belts, passive margins, diapirs and salt sheets, salt-sediment interaction and cross-section restoration.”

More on that in a moment.

Circumstance and Serendipity

He almost wasn’t even a geologist.

“Upon arriving at CalTech in 1971, I had to choose a science elective. I narrowed it down to biology and geology, but when I discovered the geology course required weekend field trips – school work instead of surfing or climbing? – I took biology and completed my degree in that subject.”

He came around, though. He had to. The school required another science lab course for graduation, so it was back to geology.

The rest was, well, a lot of things.

“In looking back,” he said, “I must conclude that I got to this point largely by a combination of circumstance and serendipity, critical support from family, friends, colleagues and mentors, and hopefully some contributions of talent, hard work and dedication.”

Rowan, who received his doctorate in structural geology from the University of Colorado, has more than 35 years’ experience in petroleum exploration, structural consulting, industry training and academic research and, yes, teaching. He has been at Sohio Petroleum Co., Geo-Logic Systems, as well as a stint with Alastair Beach Associates in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1998, he also founded his own consulting company, Rowan Consulting, which provided the independence and time to pursue those areas most attractive to him.

Salt tectonics.

Image Caption

Thrust weld in the southern Gulf of Mexico; image from Campeche WAZ courtesy of WesternGeco

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Mark G. Rowan, one of two recipients of this year’s Robert R. Berg Outstanding Research Award, was more than just a little bit surprised about his selection – as much for being considered as for winning.

“I was told that it was quite competitive this year,” said Rowan, “but that one of the things that ultimately got me over the line was that I have managed to do and publish all this research despite not having been in academia for several decades now.”

Rowan received the honor for “his outstanding contributions to research on salt tectonics, fold-thrust belts, passive margins, diapirs and salt sheets, salt-sediment interaction and cross-section restoration.”

More on that in a moment.

Circumstance and Serendipity

He almost wasn’t even a geologist.

“Upon arriving at CalTech in 1971, I had to choose a science elective. I narrowed it down to biology and geology, but when I discovered the geology course required weekend field trips – school work instead of surfing or climbing? – I took biology and completed my degree in that subject.”

He came around, though. He had to. The school required another science lab course for graduation, so it was back to geology.

The rest was, well, a lot of things.

“In looking back,” he said, “I must conclude that I got to this point largely by a combination of circumstance and serendipity, critical support from family, friends, colleagues and mentors, and hopefully some contributions of talent, hard work and dedication.”

Rowan, who received his doctorate in structural geology from the University of Colorado, has more than 35 years’ experience in petroleum exploration, structural consulting, industry training and academic research and, yes, teaching. He has been at Sohio Petroleum Co., Geo-Logic Systems, as well as a stint with Alastair Beach Associates in Glasgow, Scotland. In 1998, he also founded his own consulting company, Rowan Consulting, which provided the independence and time to pursue those areas most attractive to him.

Salt tectonics.

“It definitely does fascinate me. No question,” said the man whose Salt Tectonics School is consistently one of the highest-rated classes presented by Nautilus USA and AAPG.

There are several reasons it fascinates him.

“First, the field manages to incorporate so many individual sub-disciplines of structural geology: of course diapirism itself, but also extensional tectonics, contractional tectonics and strike-slip deformation,” he said.

For him it meant he got to work in rift basins, orogenic mountain belts and foreland basins.

“Second, the study of salt encompasses a range of scales, from basin-wide crustal deformation to small-scale folds, faults and fractures adjacent to diapirs (and then there’s what’s inside the salt itself!)”

He’s likes the unpredictable nature of it all.

“Third, the evolution over time is incredibly complex and always be different from one structure to the next.

And the fact that salt tectonics affects so much else.

“The salt impacts so many other aspects of the local and regional geology (and petroleum system), including sediment transport and deposition as well as hydrocarbon maturation and migration.”

He has also done extensive work in 3-D geometry, which fascinates him.

“For whatever reason, I love unravelling the evolution of complex structures (3-D geometry plus the dimension of time) and then telling those stories to others,” he said.

To him, there’s 3-D geology and then there’s everything else in the profession.

“With all due respect to the complexities and fascinating aspects of other structural geology sub-disciplines, nothing quite matches salt structures for the variety of incredible 3-D geometries and evolutionary pathways – these are simply the most complex 4-D problems I’ve ever encountered,” said Rowan.

He said that every salt system is in effect a unique plumbing system of a fluid (salt) in diapirs and salt sheets connected to an evolving deeper reservoir. He then went on to explain about the variety of forces (tension, compression and vertical loading) that act on fluid, the variable-strength containers (the sediments above, below, and around the salt), and the ensuing resisting deformation, but he then stopped himself.

“But that sounds very complicated. The simple reason is that I love telling stories, and these are some great stories to tell. And it doesn’t hurt that it all has important implications for hydrocarbons!”

Industry and Academia

Back to that teaching business. And, while it’s true that it’s been 20 years since he left academia, “I never really left. I am lucky to have landed (through no deliberate planning) in a position where I have one foot in industry and one in academia. I get to work with wonderful academics in different institutions without being beholden to one department/university in particular. But I also interact with great scientists in industry who bring their own skills, perspective and fantastic modern seismic data into the mix.”

It is, and has always been, about the connections.

“I still teach and mentor in large part simply because I enjoy it – I love seeing the light bulbs go off, I love knowing that (at least when I teach for industry, which is most of it) they’ll use what they learn as soon as they get back to their data, and I love seeing them take what I say and then take it a step farther, or sideways,” he said.

The continuity of it all, the through-line, if you will, is still appealing.

“Everything I do – teaching, giving talks, writing papers, consulting – is in some ways mentoring because it’s all aimed at increasing understanding and reducing confusion, including my own,” said Rowan.

He’s after perspective, which comes from the journey.

“The ideas don’t have to be correct, although it’s nice if they are more correct than not! The main goal is to get others to think more deeply about these topics, how they relate to other aspects of the larger geological picture, and the implications for hydrocarbons or any other practical angle,” he said.

His Favorite Hobby

As for the award itself – and he is already an AAPG International Distinguished Instructor and a Distinguished Lecturer – he considers the Berg to be something special.

“AAPG is the premier global petroleum-based society, and to be in the company of some of the previous recipients is a great honor and, frankly, humbling,” he said.

He wants to thank both Carl Fiduk, from WesternGeco in Houston, and Thomas Hearon, from the Colorado School of Mines, for nominating him, even though he’s pretty sure it’s going to cost him.

“They are good friends, and I suspect they had an ulterior motive: hoping that I would feel obligated to buy them beer and wine every time we’re together for the rest of our lives!” he said.

Rowan is 63 now, a fact that isn’t slowing him down, until – or unless – it does.

“There are so many papers I need and want to write, there are so many great datasets to look at, there are so many new and challenging problems to tackle. I’m sure that, health permitting of course, I’ll keep going at this pace for a fair while. I’m 63 and I can see doing the same thing at 73. Probably not at 83, but I’ll never completely quit. People retire in part so they can spend more time on their hobbies. The research is my hobby,” he said.

His advice to the next generation, includes, as you’d expect: surround yourself with smart, accomplished people and to never stop learning.

But there is something else: “Learn to say ‘I don’t know.’ It’s honest and it’s liberating – it frees your mind to pursue alternative solutions.”

Rowan still has goals, still has dreams, but he also has this wish.

“What I really need is a wealthy patron who will sponsor me, take care of all the necessities like paying the mortgage and travel costs, and allow me to spend time on the research that interests me!”

The patron is also going to have to buy those drinks for Fiduk and Hearon.

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