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