“Alexanders is closed” What next for exploration?
I thought I was being very organized last winter as I built up a portfolio of blogs and articles to provide myself with materials to post during 2020. What a great idea! Planned commercial projects were coming in and I knew that these would take up much of my time. Even as news of the epidemic filtered out of China in January, there was a sense that this was to be a repeat of SARS. But as I got ready to post today’s article at the end of February, the news from northern Italy showed all too clearly that this coronavirus had spread beyond China and that this was not going to follow the geographic limits of its predecessor SARS. It is ironic, that this blog is about a changing exploration industry. And now five months later, everything has changed. But in re-reading what I wrote I believe it is still a relevant discussion. So...
Houston: Cowboys, oil, alligators, and steak… A world that has gone? Should go? Or is it just on hold? Your answer will depend on your politics and vision of the future. Whatever your view, the world is certainly changing, and that change needs to be managed. So, what next? Or do we just wait and see what happens? That might work for some… in the swamp…
The sign on the door was clear, “Alexanders is closed”. It was April 2017 and after 10 hours on an economy flight from London, it was not what I wanted to see. But the reality was there for all to read.
Alexander's restaurant (http://jalexanders.com) at the corner of Westheimer and Wilcrest had long been my refuge. It had been there for as long as I had been visiting Houston. First as Houstons then as Alexanders. A place to relax and think, to meet with friends, enjoy a steak after a long flight or a days’ meetings.
My usual dilemma was whether to go for their ‘famous’ baby back ribs or the filet mignon with a béarnaise sauce. Then there was their “vegetable of the day” of which the sautéed spinach, creamed spinach, grilled zucchini, and beefsteak tomatoes are, or rather were, worthy of note.
The baked potato fully loaded was usually a step too far as I saved myself for their wonderful carrot cake. So moist. So bad...
And now it was gone…
Whilst for many of you the closure of Alexanders is completely inconsequential, especially now, and indeed most of you have probably never heard of Alexanders, for me, it was yet more evidence of changing times and the loss of reassuring certainties. Little did I know…
This graph is based on that shown on the World Economic Forum website in 2016 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/12/155-years-of-oil-prices-in-one-chart/) modified to include more recent changes (from Bloomberg). The original version of the graph is cited as Goldman Sachs (see additional references on the weforum page). The fluctuations in prices are clear, especially over the last 40 years
There are cycles and there are cycles...
The oil and gas industry has always been cyclic and many of us have seen many - far too many - downturns and recoveries. Indeed, many old-timers seem to keep track of their careers by the number of downturns they have seen and survived.
Each recovery in the past has seen an increase in budgets and a major hiring drive, as business returned to 'normal'.
But the last downturn has been different, starting in 2014, and now exacerbated by the consequences of COVID-19.
Yes, we as an industry are faced by many challenges, not least the transition from fossil fuels to a more diversified energy portfolio, the vagaries of unconventionals or the political game playing between the worlds leading oil producing countries. Each deserves a blog in its own right.
But the change that concerns me the most, and which I think will have the biggest ramifications not only for our industry but for Earth education in general, is the loss of experience.
The Alamo, San Antonio. A metaphor for our industry? No.
Changing demographics: the good, the bad, and the seriously worrying…
As I walked around last year’s AAPG convention in San Antonio I was struck by the greater number of young geologists and the broader diversity of attendees than in previous years.
This was great to see. Change is happening and it is no bad thing.
But with all the new faces there was also the demonstrable absence of old faces and with that experience and expertise.
it is true that each past downturn has resulted in a gap or pause in the staff demographics as potential graduates looked at what was happening and opted for different careers. The resulting demographic imbalance has been long recognized, and many, if not most companies were actively addressing this through mentoring, knowledge transfer, and digital knowledge and database systems.
But the depth and extent of this last downturn have left this process of knowledge transfer incomplete.
More significantly, it has seen a generation of experience opt for early retirement and a younger generation who are increasingly deciding against the Earth sciences. This has been compounded by a general reticence to hire significantly this time given uncertainty over the future.
The question is, have we lost so much of our experience in this last downturn that this will affect our recovery as an industry and especially our ability to brainstorm and solve the challenges that now face us?
An industry of the brightest scientists and engineers…
Our industry can boast some of the brightest scientists and engineers of the 20th and 21st centuries.
We have been at the forefront of increasing the understanding of our planet from tectonics, to depositional processes to paleontology and beyond.
Our industry has developed and build technologies and tools that can send sound waves into the Earth to resolve the structure of the subsurface even down to the Moho (the base of the crust) and can now drill through kilometers of rock from rigs sited in two kilometers of water and still know where the drill head is within meters. That is quite incredible. Well, I am still impressed
This is something that we should be extremely proud of. Achievements that we should shout about far more than we do.
The new generation is equally gifted, if not more so. I have been lucky to hire and work with many excellent young geologists. But they would be even better with mentoring from and access to experienced staff. But those experienced staff have either left or are about to leave the Industry. (As I was about to post this article, I received an e-mail from a friend in Houston who had just announced that she was leaving the Industry. Carmen is one of the most impressive scientists I have worked with and a great role model for the next generation and especially the growing number of young women joining the industry. Her departure is a devastating loss and one the Industry can ill-afford).
Experience is key!
This is all the more important as we apply our industry’s skill-base to energy transition and building new business models.
Experience is about having seen numerous real-world examples and being able to draw on these when making decisions, warts, and all. Knowing what worked, what failed, and why.
As my Ph.D. advisor repeatedly told me "the best geologists are those who have seen the most rocks". (I am convinced that this is something said by every Ph.D. advisor to every geology Ph.D. student, but that makes it no less true).
And that places us in something of a cleft stick.
On the one hand, the Industry is addressing past diversity issues and hiring a new generation of enthusiastic, talented, Earth scientists, albeit in limited numbers. Whilst simultaneously cutting costs. Great…
But, on the other hand, we have lost the experience and expertise we need to both mentor the next generation and also to make informed decisions as we start to explore once more.
So, what to do?
Let me respectfully offer a few suggestions:
1. Make more from what you have
Today companies have libraries filled with 3rd party reports, internal studies, presentations, and databases. That is an incredibly powerful resource, but only if used.
The challenge is to understand what you have and how to integrate this within your current workflows. What data and knowledge are good? What is bad? What can you accept and what should you ignore? It is certainly advantageous to know where the skeletons are before you repeat past mistakes! Mistakes cost time and monies.
Why spend more monies if you already have the answers, or resources to get to the answers, in-house?
An easy win is to get your libraries curated and databased. In some companies, this has already been done. It is something I spent 2019 doing with my libraries (see my blog on scanning)
Another solution is to bring in the original product builders and get them to explain what they did and where useful, updating their products to fit new corporate workflows. This is certainly where much of my time would have been focussed this year (until some errant RNA intervened), having spent the last 25 years designing, building, and selling products and solutions to exploration companies.
One problem with seeking out the builders is that whilst their companies may still exist (possibly) the authors themselves may have moved on.
The same is true when looking for your own staff who made the original purchases with a specific plan in mind and/or who used the products. You may need to visit the golf courses of Houston or drive out to the Hill Country (though obviously not Alexanders) – ‘social distancing’ notwithstanding.
Many of you may have access to the excellent global resources that are now available. I was privileged to be instrumental in the development of several of these, working and building some great teams. The challenge, as an exploration group, is how to get more from these. They each have their own strengths, and each was designed for slightly different purposes. What do you need to know to unleash their potential? Feel free to drop me a line. This image is based on my 2019 paper and 30 years of research and experience
2. Strengthen relationships with University research groups
University research groups have always been a great source of cutting-edge ideas, knowledge, understanding, and data. Not to mention future staff.
With down-sizing and the disappearance of company-based research groups, universities are becoming all the more important.
This is not just about bringing in a professor to give a one-off seminar, but from my experience is best achieved through more active participation through workshops, having academics work directly with teams, and through MSc and Ph.D. projects and internships.
As an example, last year I participated in a week-long workshop for a company that convened leading academics from different research groups and with varying opinions. In a few days, staff were exposed to all the views and background from the leaders in the field, something that would have taken them months to get a handle on by only reading their papers, and which even then, would not have provided the insights into the mindsets of the protagonists.
(There is also a need to maintain a presence in Academia at a time when our industry is increasingly perceived negatively).
3. Go back to the basics.
Get out the pencil crayons.
Get your young staff to look at paper copies of seismic and use colored pencils to identify horizons. The key is to encourage your teams to understand the data, know their data, and to ask questions. They should not be afraid to disagree with their elders, but wise enough to know that experience can be an advantage. We are not infallible, but we have seen more rocks and solved more problems.
4. Understand the whole system, what to ask, who to ask and where to find solutions.
With fewer staff and the disappearance of the armies of specialists we used to have, it is key that the next generation knows how the Earth system fits together.
This does not mean going all "fruit salad" (my thanks again to Catherine for that wonderful imagery), in which our staff have a little bit of knowledge of everything but no real depth.
This is about ensuring that our teams know the vocabulary and key headlines of diverse scientific fields and most importantly that they know enough to be able to ask the right questions and know whom to ask or where to search for the answers.
A picture I have used many times, but no less relevant for its repetition. When we consider any problem to do with the Earth system, whether in exploration or environmental change, we have so many components to think about. There is simply so much to take in! Where do we start
5. Do not assume that technology will solve everything…
Over the last three years, advances in machine learning and AI have been impressive.
Pattern recognition has indeed been around for many decades: auto-trace in seismic interpretation, or computerized fossil recognition in biostratigraphy. The limitation in the past was largely computer processing power, which is no longer such an issue.
With data storage now relatively cheap, and especially the development of cloud storage, accessing data and knowledge from anywhere in the world should be child’s play.
The problem is that whilst a child can operate an iPad with ease from kindergarten on, if not before, and they are incredibly computer savvy, they do not necessarily know the questions to ask. That comes with experience and does not seem to be always taught. As evidence ask them to do a Google search and see what they find; I am always amazed at what people do not find.
Technology is wonderful, and I am a self-confessed addict having designed, built, managed and analysed computer-based databases for over 30 years. But don't forget the basics - ask questions, know your data, question everything.
Operationally what should we do?
Well that is your call, but let me suggest the following:
I have spent much of my career designing, building, and managing large, global databases. Key to their success is knowing where the data has come from, what can be used, and what should be thrown the trash or used with caution. There is a fundamental difference between data and verified data. One is a collection of words and numbers, the other is power.
So, where next?
The future is about preparing our new generations of Earth scientists with all that we have learned over the last century or more, what worked, what failed, and why. To know the questions to ask and where and how to find the answers.
The next generation of Earth scientists needs to be well-grounded in the fundamentals of geology and the scientific method.
At the same time, they need to be conversant with a broad range of scientific fields, or at least enough to know the vocabulary of diverse fields and how each discipline might impact the problem they are trying to solve.
This also gives them transferrable skills that will aid the energy industry as we transition to alternative sources of energy, but also enable them to look at applying their expertise and experience to a range of other challenges, from the management of water resources to carbon capture, and storage (CCS), to geothermal energy, mineral exploration and waste management.
They need to be familiar with the tools available, but not to assume they these will solve all the problems they find.
At the end of the day, we need to harness all that we have learned in our industry to accelerate the next generation in understanding even more than we do for the betterment of mankind.
Understanding the Earth is what we do!
Epilogue. What happened to Alexanders?
A search on the internet revealed that Alexanders Westchase closed at the end of January 2017 on the very same day that I had left my role as Technical Director of an Aim-listed consultancy after 12 years of successfully building the business. Coincidence I am sure…Rule #39 notwithstanding..
Today, what was once Alexanders in Westchase, Houston, is the site of a 24-hour emergency center. Useful and admirable, especially right now. Though I won't be going there for steak
"Alexanders is closed". All change.
Useful and admirable, but not quite the dining experience I was expecting. Image from Google Streetview. What would we do without Google?
A pdf version of this blog is available here for download
Business ‘success’ very much depends on your measure of ‘success’. For some people that measure might be making large profits or growing the market value of their company. For others, it may be the physical size of their business in terms of the number of staff or offices. Whilst for others success is about being recognized for the quality of their services and products. Whichever of these metrics you chose defines your business’s culture and values and is largely dictated by the CEO.
There are numerous websites with business tips for success. Most are useful. But, which one is most appropriate for your business will depend on the industry you are in and what is important to you personally.
Below are my recommendations for success based on over 30 years’ experience in the oil and gas industry and over 10 years as an executive director of a highly successful, AIM-listed natural resources service company based in the UK.
Although my experience has been with running knowledge-based companies, with their dependence on translating creativity, ideas, and scientific excellence into income, most of the lessons I have learned may be applied to all businesses.
I hope you find this of use.
1. Be passionate about what you do
To be successful you need to be passionate about what you do. You need to care about your business, what it produces and what it stands for. This means having a vision for what you want to achieve and how it will change the world.
Once you stop caring about what you do, and your company becomes “9 to 5”, then it is time leave and do something different.
It is true that passionate leaders can be difficult to work with. An often-quoted example is the late Steve Jobs. Brilliant, driven and, by most accounts a pain in the butt to work with. But he changed the way we work and communicate, created some of the most beautiful and desirable products ever conceived, whilst simultaneous building the most valuable company in the world from the seemingly inescapable mire of the Macbook 5300 in the mid-1990s (I had one, I know how bad it got...).
Can you be passionate without being an a**e? Of course, you can.
2. Make sure you have the right team
Having the right team is critical. If you don’t then you will find yourself spending too much time worrying about what they are doing, running around retrospectively cleaning up ‘their’ mess and not having time to do what is important.
As an executive, this is totally in your hands. You are the one in control of hiring. Or, at least, you should be. If you are not, then either change this or get out quickly.
If the person you are interviewing does not meet your criteria, or you are not sure they do, then recast the net and look for someone who does.
In my experience you are far better off having a small team of like-minded, passionate people, then a big team of not so right people working 9 to 5.
Once you have the right team then you need to keep them. How you do this will depend on the individuals concerned. You will need to ensure you understand their needs and ambitions. If not, you will lose them.
But be prepared. Even the best team’s break-up eventually.
3. Know what you believe
What is your story? Why are you doing this?
Mission statements have become something of a “must-have” for all companies. Sadly, a quick search online would suggest that most mission statements come from the same source and I do wonder if there is an automatic mission statement generator out here.
This is a shame, because if all the companies truly believed in what they stated they believed in, then the world would be a much better place.
Personally, I would find it refreshing if companies included their real missions: “The mission of company X is to make heaps of cash, whatever it takes”.
That has the appeal of honesty and transparency, whilst also being quite disturbing to my liberal, albeit globalist, capitalist sensitivities. Yes, you can be a liberal-minded capitalist!
It comes down to what we, as individuals believe, and how we then communicate this to our staff and our company. This is not easy.
Perhaps the first question to ask is why do some of us work 24/7 for a business?
In most cases, it is because we love what we do, and we want the business to be successful, and for some of us because we have broader ambitions to change the world and make it better for future generations.
For me, the ‘best’ companies are those who strive to change the world we live in. Either at the day-to-day scale of providing a great service or environment, such as a wonderful evening at your favorite restaurant. Or the more grandiose ambitions such as those of Google, with their (possibly anecdotal) aim of making “all knowledge one click away” (although I now find this has changed as you will see from the link), or the original Body Shop, set up the late Anita Roddick and its concern for animal welfare (no animal testing). The mission statement I like best, because the company follows up on what it says, is that of the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.
What your ambition is will affect what business you establish as well as its mission statement.
If, on the other hand, your ambition is simply to climb as high and as fast up the corporate ladder as you can, grabbing as many monies and perceived attention on the way as possible, then frankly which type of company you manage is completely immaterial. Though I can assure you, it will not be one of mine.
4. Understand your business
Being passionate about what you do is critical, but if you are going to make a success of your business, you also need to understand what that business is. This may seem like a 'no-brainer', but there are too many examples of senior management brought into companies to 'save them' or take the company 'to the next level', who simply have no idea of the business they are trying to save.
The best way to be sure of your business story is to make this as succinct as possible. The most commonly used approached, and the one I like is to use, is the "elevator pitch" where you have 2 minutes and 10 floors in which to explain to someone what your business is and does and why they should call you.
A cliché? Absolutely. Good advice? You bet.
5. Understand your clients
There are few companies that can dictate to their clients what they, the clients, want and get away with it. Apple is, again, probably the stand-out exception.
Most companies respond to their clients, they are reactive. This is not necessarily bad, but it can mean that you are constantly playing catch-up as client needs change. This is increasingly true in the modern age of mass communication and social media with its immediacy and ever-accelerating change.
To make this work you need to understand both your own business and products (it is rather difficult to know how you can help your clients if you don’t know your own business) as well as that of your clients.
In knowledge-based consultancy, this is about doing your homework on the background to a problem that might affect a particular client. But it is also about being competent and trusted enough by your client to be able to provide them with advice and guidance when they don't know what they want and need.
To get to this point nothing beats face-to-face meetings, especially brainstorming sessions to define the problem and identify potential solutions.
6. Play to your strengths
One of my longstanding clients reiterated to me at almost every meeting over 20 years to “play to your strengths”.
Of course, this was as much about what they needed than a piece of business advice. Companies need to trust their service providers, especially large organizations for whom switching to a new provider is extremely difficult.
As a business, you need to be known and trusted for something that clients can put their finger on. You need to be an expert in a particular field or provide a service you are renowned for.
This may seem contrary to the need for “flexibility” which features highly in most top 10 lists. Flexibility is certainly important (though not in my top 10). But for many companies talk of “flexibility” can really be a cover for “flakiness” and a lack of a strategic direction.
Once you have an established strength, then you can think about diversifying if that is your strategy.
7. Trust and relationships are important
Another cliché, but true none the less: business is about trust and relationships.
I recall a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) with one of the oil majors to whom I was trying to sell a particular scientific report. Well, I gave a presentation, got chatting and, as usual, I got carried away with the science. At the end of the meeting, I asked if they had all the information they needed. To which I was greeted with big smiles. I had indeed…
Sales is always that balance about being excited about the product and what it contains and not giving away the answers so that the client doesn’t need to buy the product…
What happened in this case? Well, the company bought the report, and then bought more and became one of our best clients. Why? Because they knew that when they needed to chat with an expert to get answers hey could trust they only needed to call.
Relationships and trust take years to build but can take only moments to destroy.
Whatever you do, don't intentionally destroy relationships. I have seen this happen and it is insane. If you are retreating (moving away from a particular business line or sector, for whatever reason), be very sure that the bridges you are burning may not be useful in the future when fortunes change, and you are on the advance.
8. Don't run out of cash
Most companies that fail do so because they simply run out of cash.
This need not reflect a lack of 'success', nor the lack of a strong order book, but more the case that you probably should have changed your Finance Director.
It is about managing one input, revenue, and one output, costs. For most knowledge-based companies, the biggest costs are staff, which is why it is so important to have the right team around you.
You need to have control of both sides of this equation. Revenue comes back to knowing your customers and cost comes down to then building the right products and doing so efficiently
9. Be organized
Being organized as a business includes both how the company is structured to how the business is run operationally - how you build your products (project management and workflows) and manage your data and knowledge (data management). These are inter-related and will directly impact your cost-base.
Keep your management structure simple, with few levels as possible. This will vary by business, but in knowledge-based consultancy remaining "hands-on" is often critical, since access to your most senior, experienced team members is what your clients expect and what they are paying for.
You then need the right staff around you, a good lieutenant you can trust, and good support staff.
Operationally, you need to implement a clear project management system. Everyone needs to know what they are doing, why they are doing it and how to do it.
Getting this right is surprisingly difficult. Most project management websites advocate getting everyone's input and 'buy-in' on project and management systems. This is great in theory but usually results in chaos. In reality, the best way to make a system work is to have that system in place before you hire your first staff. There will then be no arguments about implementation.
A major risk for companies, especially in today’s economy, is losing key staff. Capturing knowledge and understanding through digital workflows can mitigate this by building, what a former consultant of mine, referred to as a 'corporate brain'. This acts as the "how to" guides for any new staff, a reminder to existing staff and a springboard for developing new ideas and improvements if properly designed.
Despite what many people think and fear, a good project management system should never inhibit creativity, it should facilitate it.
(And don't forget to back up your computers!)
10. Have an exit plan
“All the world is a stage and the people merely players”. Good old Shakespeare. A line for every occasion. But like any actor, for a business leader, there is a best time to exit stage left.
Hanging on to your position by the fingernails is singularly unattractive.
The question of exit comes back to why you do the job and what you want to achieve. If it is simple monies and perceived prestige, then moving companies frequently is likely the best strategy – before you are found out.
If you care deeply about your business, staff, and clients, then it becomes much trickier and this is where you need to consider ensuring continuity and who you want to pass the baton to.
In knowledge-based companies, a common dilemma is that as you become more successful you move further and further away from the science and higher up the management ladder. This may not be what you want, nor what your clients want. The dilemma is that if you hand over to a new management team in order to focus on the science, you may find they have a different strategy and yourself out of a job.
Been there, done that!
Be prepared to make a choice.
Once you exit, walk away and don’t look back!
Dinner with the romantic poets in the early years of the 19th century must have been a bundle of laughs, as they wrestled with the transience of life and the realities of the industrial revolution. The world around them was rapidly changing in ways that few could comprehend, and that change was accelerating. The assurances and certainties of the past were gone as urbanization, technological advances and scientific questioning took hold. Faced with so much change the Romantics did what they could, which was a mix of getting very depressed, and writing about it, reminiscing about a past ‘golden age’, and writing about it, doing a runner to southern Europe, and writing about it, and seeking solace in various medicinal pick-me-ups (ok, drugs) to help them, well, write about it... As a consequence, and if nothing else, we do have a substantial literature on the impact of change in the early 19th century.
A fear of change is true for every generation. You only need to look at today’s newspapers, blogs, and social media to realize that it is as prevalent today as any age in the past.
Each generation always seems to reminisce about some past ‘golden age’.
The problem is that those ‘golden ages’ are never the same. If only people compared notes. Invariably, the ‘golden age’ is a period in their lives or past that they themselves barely remember or which they did not fully understand at the time.
As has been said by many others, those who always look back to a ‘golden age’ have truly awful memories.
The Romantics were no exception, as they tended to forget the realities of cabbage for dinner, unsanitary housing, and death by age 40, if you were lucky (the average age for the 16-18th centuries in England).
The reality is that for the majority, today’s industrialized, globalized, technological world is a better place to live, for all its faults. We live longer, eat better, have access to so much more data and knowledge at the click of a button. We can immediately call anywhere in the world on a mobile phone, which can also access the world’s libraries, tell us where we are at any time, direct us to the nearest café latte, hospital or meeting.
I for one have no wish to return to the 1970s, the 1950’s and certainly not the 18th or 19th centuries. For me, the golden age is what we aspire to build not a past age.
This is not to say that the present-day is not scary and that we should not be concerned about change.
The Industrial Revolution certainly scared the Romantics and raised in them some very important philosophical and moral questions that are just as valid today.
Not least amongst these was the question of technological advance and scientific inquiry driven “because we can” rather than “whether we should”. This was embodied in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. This book was purportedly the product of a competition to write the best horror story, between Mary, her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori whilst they spent the summer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva, on their way south. But it is a far deeper piece of literature than just a piece of “horror” fiction and something that all scientists should read. When I was at Chicago, “Frankenstein” was still essential reading on their ground-breaking Western Civilization course, which I assume it still is.
There was also the question of permanence and through this, the question of what do each of us leave behind and does it matter? In short, how will we be remembered?
In his poem “Ozymandias”, from which the quote that leads this blog is taken, Shelley describes all that there is left to show of a once powerful king, as a metaphor for us all. “Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Now, just ruins. And yet…
I was minded recently to think about this question by two conferences I attended 20 years part.
The first conference, back in 1998, was a GIS conference in Florence, Italy. The second, a meeting of paleoclimate specialists in Colorado in 2016.
It is hard not to attend a conference in Florence, especially one on maps. The atmosphere is heavy with the Renaissance, the libraries replete with ancient tomes and maps that are as much a work of beauty as of cartographic science. So ESRI Europe’s user group meeting in Florence could hardly fail, and it did not. The mix of academics, civil servants, decision makers, and industry specialists was stimulating. Through numerous conversations around posters and after talks I, for one, found solutions to some of the problems I was facing in petroleum exploration analytics, simply by seeing how other fields solved their problems.
But, one conversation, over canapés and prosecco, made me stop and think. It was with a senior European civil servant, whose name I cannot remember if I ever knew it, who was close to retirement and who made the following statement to me, “that in our careers we can only ever hope to achieve one major thing”.
I was relatively early in my own career and it left an impression. Could it be true?
His argument was not in terms of numbers of projects or papers completed, but that at the end of the day you will be remembered for one thing and one big thing only.
It is something that has stuck with me and something, to be honest, that at the time I did not believe at all
Roll on 20 years…. Boulder, 2016
I had been out of Academia for over 20 years when I was invited to attend a paleoclimate workshop in Boulder, Colorado in early 2016. An impressive list of attendees and great discussions followed over two days, which I found scientifically therapeutic and a serious wake-up call to tell me that I had been in management too long.
I also realized that I was getting old as I looked around and realized, to my chagrin, that the attendees who I thought were Ph.D. students were actually young professors - what they say about policemen looking younger and making you feel old, the same is true for professors!
But when one person told me how they had read my work and used it for years, I was gratified, reassured, flattered.
But the lingering question was this: was that my one achievement in my career that I would be remembered for? And that work was already 20 years old
2017. All change
A year later, and I found myself self-employed. As an executive director for 10 years, my focus had been on management, strategy, and marketing. But, now here was an opportunity to regain my academic ‘mojo’, to catch up on research, teaching and several decades of scientific papers. An almost impossible task. Thank goodness for Kimbo espresso coffee, good wine and a range of great cookbooks…
Now, after 24 months I have a major paper published, with several more on the way. New datasets in progress, a completely new data management system and suite of workflows, and an array of new ideas to promote. And most importantly, I have a reinvigorated curiosity about the Earth - my scientific ‘mojo’ is back.
In so doing I also found an answer to my question.
Are we limited to achieving only one big thing?
No. Of course not. We can always do more. It is about time and priorities. And therein lies the issue.
Once we get into our careers, where ever that takes us, time goes quickly. No sooner have we started then we are looking back. For me, it was when I was around 35. Next thing I knew I was close on 55.
There is also the problem that at the very point that we can contribute most to science given our experience, that experience takes us into management where we can no longer do the science. Something is wrong with that surely!
So, are there any lessons to learn that might help you if you are in the same position?
Let me suggest a few thoughts:
As for Shelley and his companions watching the sunset over Lake Geneva? It is sobering to think that within eight years of their writing competition in Switzerland, Percy Shelley, John Polidori, and Lord Byron would all be dead, and all at a young age, 29 (1822), 25 (1821) and 35 (1824), respectively.
Nothing is forever
Paleogeographic maps come in a variety of forms. But it is as reconstructions of past landscapes that they are the most useful. Why? Because it is on these landscapes that the geological record is built. A particle sees topography, rivers, and oceans. It experiences rain and floods and the heat from the sun. It does not see mantle convection nor crustal hyper-extension nor differentiate between a compressional or extensional tectonic setting, at least not directly. How sediment is formed in the hinterland through weathering and erosion, transported and ultimately deposited is a function of what happens at the surface and therefore what that landscape is.
A Google search for the term "paleogeography" reveals a wide range of maps and images. From simple black and white sketches showing past shorelines to maps of depositional systems or the distribution of tectonic plates, to full-color renditions of paleo-elevation and -bathymetry. Many, if not most, are informative, some are aesthetically quite beautiful.
For most geologists, such maps need little introduction. They have a long history of usage in the literature, and today have become something approaching de rigueur for conference presentations and corporate montages.
But paleogeography is more than just images in presentations. It is or can be, a powerful tool for managing, analyzing and visualizing geological information, for investigating the juxtaposition and interaction of Earth processes, as well as acting as the boundary conditions for more advanced Earth system modeling with which to better understand how our planet works.
Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that will explore paleogeography.
It will be a journey that will take us through the history of paleogeography, a look at how maps are generated, a guide to some of the pitfalls and caveats of mapping, a review of some of the mapping tools available, as well as examples of how paleogeographic maps have been used to solve real-world problems, especially in resource exploration where I have the most experience.
It is a journey that I hope you enjoy and find useful.
In this first blog, I want to set the scene by addressing two simple questions. What is paleogeography? And why should you care?
The Nature of the Problem: there is simply so much to take in.
If we look at any landscape and the processes responsible for forming it and which are acting on it, such as in the central Pyrenees shown above, we are faced with something of a dilemma: There is simply so much to take in.
For example, if we are teaching field geology in such an area do we focus on the structural evolution, or the stratigraphy, or the depositional systems or the climate, or vegetation or any one of the many components that together comprise the Geological record and the Earth system in this view?
Or do we try and cover all the bases?
Ideally, we want to try and cover everything. But we have limited time. We also do not want to overwhelm all concerned with diverse technical vocabulary and concepts. The risk of losing our audience.
Consequently, we usually focus on a specific field of study.
The same is true in exploration. Whether we are assisting management to make strategic decisions about where to explore or are a member of an asset team identifying and evaluating blocks and then prospects. We need to understand all the components of the Earth system if we are to make informed decisions.
30 years ago, companies would have had an army of in-house specialists on whom they could call for help to do this, and even more academic experts on retainers. But, those days have long since gone.
Unfortunately, one thing that has not gone is the budget constraints of the commercial world.
Exploration is, by its very nature, a net cost to an energy exploration business.
So, in addition to the scientific challenges, in exploration, we are also faced with trying to extract the maximum value from limited budgets.
So, what do we do?
Finding solutions: Paleogeography as a key tool in the geologist’s toolbox
We need a tool with which we can bring together (gather), manage, visualize and interrogate diverse geological information, information which is often sparse (especially in frontier exploration areas), sometimes questionable, and often equivocal.
If we look to history for guidance, we find 19th-century geologists faced with the same problem. A growing volume of diverse geological information and how to deal with it.
Over the preceding 100 years, scientists had tried to encapsulate the contemporary knowledge of the Earth system into a single book or series of books. Humboldt's Cosmos or Lyell's Principles are examples. But this had become next to impossible by the middle of the 19th century due to the sheer volume of information, resulting in an exacerbation of the scientific specialism that we have today. Humboldt’s opus itself was unfinished at his death and completed based on his notes.
One solution to this problem was to use maps to distil visually this wealth of information. Ami Boué’s maps of the World, more commonly known through Alexander Keith Johnston's “Physical Atlas of Natural Phenomena” (Johnston, 1856) in the middle of the century., or Élisée Reclus’ excellent “The Earth” (Reclus, 1876)
Reclus’s book on the Earth (Reclus, 1876) included maps showing the distribution of mountains and volcanoes. With the distribution of seismicity and you have all the information necessary for plate tectonics
With geology, the problem was exacerbated by the time dimension. This was not simply a matter of mapping the current physical state of the Earth and its processes but how this had evolved over time. The past geography of the Earth. This is Paleogeography.
It is no coincidence that Thomas Sterry Hunt, the author attributed with first coining the term “paleogeography”, was also one of the first petroleum geologists, looking for ways to manage and analyze geological data for exploration. (We will revisit this in a later blog).
Paleogeographic maps can summarise a wealth of geological information in a simple, visual way by distilling the record into representations of depositional environments and structures. This then allows additional information to be added and juxtapositions and relationships investigated.
Such maps can also show lithological distribution and character, although strictly speaking facies maps are distinct from paleogeography’s in that they represent the product of processes, i.e. the rock record (as do GDEs for that matter), whilst a paleogeography represents the environment and landscape in which and on which those processes act and upon which the geological record is built.
The late Ypresian paleogeography for the central Pyrenees showing one transport pathway that takes in the three outcrops shown.
From Markwick (2019)
In practice, this definition of paleogeography has become blurred. Facies maps, GDEs (Gross Depositional Environments), and plate reconstructions are all frequently referred to as “paleogeography”
The original definition of paleogeography proposed by Hunt was as a field within geology to describe the “geographical history” of the geological record, which to him included the depositional environments, such as deserts and seas (Hunt, 1873).
This view of paleogeography as being the representation of the depositional environments that comprise a landscape is useful for two important reasons.
First, because it allows us to distinguish between the landscape, the processes acting on the landscape, the processes that created the landscape, and the rock record that is the product of all of the above. This makes the Earth system more manageable. It also means that when building a map we can audit each step (something we will look at another time).
But second, it allows us to deconstruct what the rock record directly responds to. What is important to consider. Where we need to focus our time (and monies). If we think of a sedimentary particle formed in the hinterland through weathering and erosion, transported and ultimately deposited, what does it really ‘see’ (i.e. respond to – at the risk of personifying clastic particles too much). A particle sees topography, rivers, and oceans. It experiences rain and floods and the heat from the sun. It does not see mantle convection nor crustal hyper-extension nor differentiate between a compressional or extensional tectonic setting, at least not directly.
It responds to the contemporary landscape and the processes acting on it.
A particle eroded from the hinterland and transported to its depositional location responds on its journey to processes at the Earth surface
Paleogeography defined: the problem of time
We now need to add another component to our definition of what paleogeography is. And that is time.
This is something that was identified by Charles Schuchert, a professor at Yale and colleague of Joseph Barrell, one of the founders of modern stratigraphy.
Cenomanian – Turonian section, Steinaker Reservoir. What would a Cretaceous paleogeography meaningfully represent? The transgressive shales or prograding sands or any range of other units through the Cretaceous
The Earth is dynamic and landscapes and depositional environments and their products the rock record can change over relatively limited geographic distances and short temporal intervals. For Schuchert, a global Cretaceous map was meaningless, for the very simple reason of what exactly did it represent? A landscape at the beginning of the Cretaceous, the end, the maximum extent of marine conditions, or as more likely, a pastiche of lots of different parts of that Cretaceous record? Schuchert’s recommendation was to use the finest stratigraphic intervals possible, which for him were represented by stratigraphic formations.
Kay went further to suggest that ideally paleogeography should represent a “moment in time”. Rather like looking at a satellite image. In this definition, paleogeography was a snapshot of the depositional environment and the landscapes at a specific moment. That makes perfect sense, but there is a problem. In the absence of a global correlation tool that can pick out a moment in time, this is next to impossible to achieve, especially over large distances. But it is an aspiration. It is also a reminder to ask of a map, what does it represent? Again, this is something we will return to in a later blog.
What is paleogeography?
Paleogeography is the representation of the past surface of the Earth, at a ‘moment’ in time.
Why is it important and why should you care?
Because it allows us to bring together diverse information that will help us better understand the Earth system, whether we are teaching in Spain or faced with deciding on where to explore. Paleogeography gives us the spatial context for gathering, managing, visualizing and analyzing a wide array of geological information in a way that is easy to digest.
At the end of the day, paleogeography is far more than just an image in a presentation.
This blog is one of a series based on a lecture course on paleogeography. Readers are also directed to a new paper on paleogeography published in the Geological Magazine: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/geological-magazine/article/palaeogeography-in-exploration/444CC2544340A699A01539A2D4C6E92A
The Knowing Earth Review is an annual publication designed to provide Earth scientists and explorationists with an introduction to the Earth system. This is done through paleogeography, which provides the spatial and temporal context for gathering, managing, analysing and visualizing the diversity of components and processes that make up the system, and whose interaction shapes the Earth. This includes topics ranging from tectonics and mantle convection, crustal architecture and structure, paleogeographic mapping and depositional systems, Earth system modeling, drainage analysis and paleohydrology, lithofacies retrodiction and biodiversity.
This review may be especially useful for new staff and students who have not experienced the ‘big picture’ approach before, or for the coffee room to stimulate interest and discussion.
The 2019 edition will be released at AAPG 2019 in San Antonio.
The Review is freely distributed as a printed copy to sponsors of our partner university research groups and to clients of Knowing Earth.
The 2018 issue can now be downloaded for free as a pdf at the following location. PDF
2018 Edition Contents
Welcome to Knowing Earth
Part of geology’s appeal is its breadth and diversity, bridging the divide between the humanities and the ‘pure’ sciences, borrowing elements from all. Whether we call ourselves ‘geologists’, ‘Earth scientists’ or ‘geoscientists’, the key to understanding the Earth is considering how all the components of the Earth system fit together, interact and evolve through time. But this breadth and diversity come at a cost and nowhere more so than when applied to oil and gas exploration.
How the Paleogeographic Atlas Project Redefined Paleogeographic Mapping and Big Data for Exploration
Fred Ziegler’s Paleogeographic Atlas Project was something of an oasis in a building that might otherwise be described diplomatically as architecturally ‘interesting’. If you have ever been to the Hinds building at The University of Chicago you will know what I mean. The office comprised a relatively large work area with three smaller annexes. Large wooden tables occupied the central space surrounded on all sides by shelves filled with books and papers arranged in alphabetical order, each paper in it is own manila folder, each carefully recorded in a reference database, a stamp on its cover to indicate the basics of what it contained. From the resulting databases and atlases, Fred and his team reconstructed past landscapes as paleogeographic maps, developing methods that still define much of how we do paleogeography today. But the Atlas Project also showed how to build, manage and analyze large geological databases. With ‘Big Data’ now prevalent throughout our industry, it is timely to look back to Chicago for some guidance
Revealing the Earth’s Architecture
When Thomas Sterry Hunt first coined the phrase “paleogeography” to describe the reconstruction of the Earth’s geography through time (Hunt, 1873), his workflow began with an understanding of what he referred to as the “architecture” of the Earth. By architecture, he was describing the Earth’s structural framework, crustal geometry and composition, and geodynamics, which today we define broadly within the concept of “Crustal Architecture”.
From Source to Sink: the Importance of Drainage Reconstruction
Source-to-sink has become a key concept in exploration, especially for understanding and predicting reservoir facies character and distribution. Source-to-sink follows the path of a particle from its formation through weathering in the basin hinterland, to burial and preservation in a sink area via erosion and transport (Martinsen et al., 2010; Sømme et al., 2009). This is a complex journey that requires an understanding of a wide range of subjects from tectonics to climate, weathering and erosion, transport mechanisms and depositional systems.
Modelling the Earth System for Exploration: why some Models are Useful
“All models are wrong, but some are useful”
George Box (Box and Draper, 1987)
George Box’s quote has become something of a cliché and one I have frequently heard when promoting the use of climate and lithofacies models in exploration over the past 20 years. Though the usual riposte I receive is with an emphasis on “all models are wrong”. The scepticism levelled especially at climate modelling has many ‘justifications’: “models are not data”, “there are too many uncertainties”, “yesterday’s weather forecast was wrong so how can I believe a climate model?”, “climate change is not real, so the models must be wrong”, “models are models”. Followed by the frequent question “do you have any seismic?”.
Bringing it all Together: the View from the Field
The 11th century Castillo de Samitier sits precariously upon a Paleocene limestone ridge some 450 metres high above the Río Cinca that winds its way south through the gorge below. All that remains of the ‘castle’ is a small chapel, the Ermita de San Emeterio y San Celedonio, and a single defensive tower, a second having long since fallen into the narrow gorge below. From the castle, you can see in one view how tectonics, landscape, climate, deposition interacted some 50 million years ago, and how they interact today. The view is breath-taking, but highlights a problem, there is simply so much to take in.
Creating a Legend
Maps are a means of visualizing spatial information. As such, they need a map legend that conveys that information through colour or ornamentation as simply and clearly as possible. In geology, there is a long tradition of colouring and coloured maps, with ‘relatively’ standardized symbologies for chronostratigraphy (geological time), structural elements and lithologies.
Knowing Earth is about building partnerships and ensuring that all members have a common suite of baseline databases with which to build understanding. For further information, whether commercial or academic, please contact myself or my colleagues.