Last summer, nearly 30 geoscientists and engineers from the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources trekked through an array of outcrops in the Sulphur Mountain Formation to piece together how the Montney Formation – Western Canada’s most prolific resource play – was formed.
Rock by rock, they saw how the outcrops revealed a history of sedimental deposition, sedimentary structures, trace and body fossils, and even a bone bed.
And, rather than getting there by airplane or car and hiking over tumultuous terrain, they navigated each nook and cranny from the comfort of their homes.
For most CSUR members, it was their first virtual field trip and will likely not be their last.
“We were not sure how our membership would respond to a virtual field trip, but we retained the entire crowd,” said Al Kassam, a technical coordinator at CSUR who organized the event in the wake of COVID-19. “We would typically take a hammer and chisel to the rocks, but that didn’t seem to matter. It was just like being out there.”
While virtual field trips cannot replace hands-on experience, Kassam knew that an enthusiastic expert who could thoughtfully guide a trip would be key to a successful experience, and word quickly spread about Canadian geologist Jon Noad, AAPG Member and president of Sedimental Services. In addition to his 20 years of experience in the industry, including leading field trips, Noad seemed to have a rare ability to make people feel like they are exploring the rocks alongside him.
“He has a lot of energy and is a lot of fun in the field. He draws you in,” Kassam said.
Using a combination of well-chosen locations, lively videos, explanatory slides and expert commentary, Noad laid out the specific mechanics of the depositional models in the Montney Formation on a fully guided tour, dropping fun facts when time allowed.
“He told us about a massive extinction event that decimated about 94 percent of the species on the planet some 250 million years ago,” Kassam said. “We learned that events like this leave their fingerprints in the rock record for us to explore and exploit for hydrocarbons.”
Prompted by last year’s need for creative visits into the field, Noad, a former senior geologist for Shell, put his doctorate degree in sedimentology to use and shot more than 80 videos with the intention to keep field experiences alive. In the videos, Noad is handling rocks he has carefully chosen from Cretaceous outcrops and shoreface deposits, for example, and discussing how to interpret their clues into the subsurface.
So far, the 10,000-plus views he’s received on LinkedIn and a mounting number of requests for virtual field trips from both industry and conferences have proved him successful.
“I prefer to mix and match videos and build trips by age, by depositional setting and by region. I see virtual field trips as a significant component of training,” Noad said. “They complement on-site field trips and provide an inexpensive, zero-logistics option for companies in a low oil-price world.”
Around the World in 80 Minutes
Noad started out small – using a cell phone lens and his 9-year-old daughter as a videographer – as he experimented with the virtual field trip concept last year.
Today, in addition to higher quality videos, he works with aerial images of outcrops captured by drone, satellite data, 3-D outcrop models and scanned fossils – all of which are used to show how rocks provide valuable insight into the subsurface. He credits much of the refinement of his work to John A. Howell, founder of the Virtual Outcrop Geology Group and chair in geology and petroleum geology at the University of Aberdeen.
“Every outcrop has geological features that can provide key information in interpreting depositional setting, structural setting, formation and age,” Noad said. “However, it is often challenging to piece together scattered fragments of data from across a large outcrop. Virtual field trips allow you to focus on essential pieces of data, saving valuable time in the field.”
So, for example, how might one show how clastic oil and gas reservoirs are deposited in different depositional settings? Noad’s got that:
“Hypothetically, we could begin in Golden Gate Highlands Provincial Park in South Africa and explore the transition from fluvial outcrops to aeolian deposits in Triassic rocks, capped by lava flows. We would add in outcrops from Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, looking at fluvial evolution and changes in river architecture through time.
“We would then look at estuarine deposits from the modern Rhone Delta in France, with supporting core data, before returning to Alberta to look at the beautifully exposed, sand- and mud-filled incised valleys and heterolithic tidal channel deposits of the Drumheller region.
“We finish the trip in the Book Cliffs of Utah – nature’s sequence stratigraphic laboratory – with a mixture of shoreface settings and include similar deposits from two Miocene outcrops in eastern Borneo that show the impact of large storms on shoreface deposits.”
After visiting three continents in a single hour, participants would have learned about the varying scales of different reservoir facies and how to interpret depositional settings from sedimentary structures, trace fossils, stacking patterns and rock properties. They also would know how to apply sequence stratigraphic concepts to predict reservoir facies and extrapolate reservoir presence and quality away from the outcrop.
In between videos shown in his trips, Noad presents slides that demonstrate how different facies appear on wireline logs and what one might expect to see in core or displayed in seismic data. He also might include several short exercises to embed such concepts, and participants can take home a detailed electronic field guide as a reminder and reference volume.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘The more rocks you see the better geologist you are,’” Noad said. “Rather than wandering around an outcrop, the videos focus immediately on the very best examples of each structure. This saves time and can ‘high grade’ the field trip experience.”
Concentrated Benefits, Minimal Cost and Risk
While on-site field experience offers the opportunity to handle rocks, test hypotheses on the spot, chat with fellow students and colleagues and stay for an indefinite amount of time at an outcrop, virtual field trips have benefits that Noad believes will be beneficial even when social distancing is no longer required.
While a typical on-site field trip might cost $500 a day, factoring in travel and accommodations can easily send prices soaring into the thousands. Virtual trips are a fraction of that cost. Furthermore, when travel days and lengthy treks from outcrop to outcrop are removed from the equation, participants can save days, even weeks, of their time. Virtual field trips focus on outcrop highlights, so long days otherwise spent in the field can be compressed into as little as an hour.
Because participants are at home or in their offices, they can avoid safety issues, such as steep slopes, falling rocks and wildlife threats. And, unlike most on-site field trips that cap the number of participants, virtual trips know no limit.
Perhaps their most compelling feature is the fact that anyone can attend. Those with mobility issues, governmental travel restrictions, and people who simply cannot afford to travel or be away from their families or jobs can go anywhere in the world to learn.
Stephen Lokier, a founder of Seds Online, an online hub for sedimentologists, invited Noad to conduct a virtual field trip to Dinosaur Provincial Park for members in January.
“We saw fabulous outcrops, really stunning trace fossils and stunning stratigraphy,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m desperate to get back into the field because my research is field-based, but this is filling a need.”
Lokier believes virtual field trips will become more customary in the future.
“My budget may allow me one field trip a year for educational purposes. Now, I can attend another half dozen or dozen that I otherwise couldn’t afford – either because of time or money,” he said. “True, it’s not the same level of immersion – I don’t get to scratch and smell the rocks – but I do get an experience that I never would have otherwise. The younger generations particularly embrace the interactive aspect of these trips.”
Early career geoscientists are looking for educational opportunities that hold their attention.
“We all remember how some lecturers droned on in the classroom,” Lokier said. “Our trip to Dinosaur Park was not like that. Jon presented the concept, then took us into the field via his videos, repeating this formula with an opportunity to ask questions and interact with him. You don’t get this level of immersion with a scientific paper.”
‘The World Is Our Oyster’
Once travel restrictions are lifted, Noad plans to travel the world to shoot the most demonstrative ancient and modern outcrops, and outcrops in remote places that require extensive travel or are difficult to reach.
“The world is our oyster,” he said, sharing that he plans to shoot an additional 200 to 300 videos in the coming year or two.
While geologists have been his primary audience, Noad stressed that geophysicists, petrophysicists, petroleum business professionals, and reservoir, production and chemical engineers also can benefit from virtual tours of outcrops.
“Knowing that you have an interdisciplinary audience, you can show how data collected by each of the disciplines is applied to interpreting and understanding the subsurface,” he said. “For example, a geophysicist might be interested in the potential level of resolution that can be achieved, and therefore how thick the individual beds or stacked beds would have to be to be visible on seismic data.”
Thinking further into the future, Noad said virtual field trips could benefit those working in fields of sustainable energy.
“Both hydrocarbon and geothermal reservoir analogs occur in outcrops, so the key to running virtual alternative energy field trips would be selecting appropriate outcrops,” he said.
Lokier sees virtual field trips as “phenomenally useful” in teaching high school, university and post-graduate students. “This is opening the universe to people,” he said.
“There is an appetite for this, and that’s very encouraging,” Noad said. “With modern-day technology, the sky is the limit.”