The Geological Hubble

I said in my last post that I’d given the institutions I’ll be visiting the choice of four talks. These talks, I believe, represent some of my current research interests. In my next series of posts, starting with this one, I’ll provide some of the background to these talks. So, here goes…
The Hubble Telescope (see image below) was launched on April 24th, 1990, costing 2.5 billion USD (£2,041,649,725 at current exchange rates) to build. It orbits the Earth at 347 miles (558 km) at 4.66 miles/second (7.5 km/second). The aim of Hubble was to record some of the most detailed visible light images ever, thereby allowing a deep view into space and time. Since the launch of Hubble in 1990, the field of Astrophysics has received an enormous boost in its ability to tackle fundamental questions of stellar evolution, galaxy formation and basic cosmogenic questions, such as the amount of dark matter in the Universe. These advances reflect the fact that Hubble is a space- rather than Earth-based observation system; it is therefore not so greatly impact by atmosphere-related ‘noise’ that plagues Earth-based systems. Despite being awesome, its not always been plain-sailing for Hubble
Image result for hubble telescope
The Hubble Telescope (source:

In their landmark paper in 2005, Joe Cartwright and Mads Huuse referred to three-dimensional (3D) seismic reflection data as the “Geological Hubble”. By this they meant that these data, which were only then becoming available to the academic community, had the power to allow detailed investigations of the structure, stratigraphy and evolution of large sedimentary basins; in short, the field of Geosciences could benefit from these data in the same way Astrophysics had from Hubble. They showcased how 3D seismic data could be used across a range of disciplines, including seismic stratigraphy/geomorphology, structural analysis, fluid-rock interactions (see below), and igneous geology.

3D seismic visualisation showing the absolutely stunning seismic expression and structures (principally doughnut-shaped ridges flanking sub-circular depressions) associated with the opal A-CT (silica) diagenetic boundary (labelled ‘C’), NE Atlantic Ocean. From Davies and Cartwright (2007).

Although filled with stunning images, for me the most startling image from Cartwright and Huuse (2005) is their Fig. 1, which is shown below; this image beautifully illustrates the issue of ‘spatial aliasing’ (i.e. insufficient sampling of the data along the space axis), showing the enhanced geological ‘richness’  3D seismic data gives to an interpreter. See also Fig. 4 in the same paper; honestly, it’s one of my favourite pictures of all time.

Sketches indicating the advantages of 3D over 2D seismic reflection data (see Cartwright & Huuse, 2002).

Having undertaken a largely field-based PhD, I have always been intrigued and slightly obsessed by the general applications of seismic reflection data (2D or 3D) to all areas of Earth Sciences. More specifically, I am struck how even modest-quality data can allow you to extend your geological interpretation into the third dimension; in essence, these data allow you to get ‘behind the outcrop’, sometimes over areas covering several hundreds to thousands of km2.

3D visualisation showing the salt-tectonic structure of the Sao Paulo Plateau, offshore Brazil. Such a complex array of minibasins and flanking diapirs would be, I argue, impossible to resolve with 2D seismic data alone. Image courtesy of Clara Rodriguez.

Therefore, in homage to Cartwright and Huuse (2005), and to reflect my passion for the use of seismic reflection data in the Earth Sciences, one of my GSA talks is entitled: 3D Seismic Reflection Data: Has the Geological Hubble Retained Its Focus? In this talk, ca. 12 years on from Cartwright and Huuse (2005), I will present just a few of what I view as the key recent advances in our understanding of basin structure, stratigraphy and evolution. At the time of writing this blog, the final content of the talk is not yet finalised. However, to reflect my past, present and potentially future research interests, which, I must admit, are a little ‘broad’ (i.e. unfocused), I’m likely to talk about some of the advances made in salt tectonics, igneous geology, geodynamic analysis and normal fault growth (excuse the self-cites; #sorrynotsorry). I may also discuss how interpretations arising from even very high-quality 3D seismic data can lead to unbelievably different geological interpretations…What I most certainly will do is stress that future advances at least partly relies on hydrocarbon exploration companies and government agencies continuing to make their data freely available via easy-to-access data portals. I will try and convince people in the audience, be they ‘geodynamicists’, sedimentologists, structural geologists or geomorphologists, can benefit from utilising what I believe are currently an underused data type. It’ll be exciting. I promise.

Author: Christopher Aiden-Lee Jackson

I am Professor of Basin Analysis @imperialcollege. I ❤️ 🏃🏿, 🚴🏿 and @basinsIC (⛏). I obsess about the tectono-stratigraphic development of sedimentary basins. Why? Because I'm hopeless at everything else.

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