2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition:

Datapages, Inc.Print this page

A History of Paleogeography in Exploration: Lessons From the Past for the Next Generation of Explorers


Paleogeographic maps are common throughout Exploration. But, much of their use is as 'flat' images in presentations. That is a great shame, because they are potentially a much more powerful tool. A look at the history of paleogeography explains why, and what can be done to make better use of paleogeography within exploration workflows.

Paleogeography has a long history in geology going back to the early 19th century and the land-sea maps of Charles Lyell and Jean-Baptiste Elie de Beaumont, although the term “paleogeography” did not appear until Thomas Sterry Hunt in 1873. The purpose of these 19thcentury maps was to visualize the geography of the past as a context for understanding the vast amount of geological information being collected. It was Hunt, one of the first petroleum geologists, who established a basic workflow for paleogeographic mapping and who stressed the importance of considering the crustal architecture. This was a workflow developed further by Charles Schuchert in his 1910 North American paleogeography atlas, which included the full breadth and diversity of geological information from the structural framework to depositional environments, paleodrainage and paleotopography.

Despite the clear potential applications of paleogeography in exploration, and the efforts of Schuchert, the use of paleogeography in exploration remained limited. By 1943, John Emery Adams was to lament that paleogeography was still under-utilised. His reasons were clear:

1. Building paleogeography’s is labour intensive

2. Maps need to be drawn at high temporary resolution; this followed the observations of Schuchert, who questioned the value of maps at temporal resolutions coarser than a stratigraphic Formation.

3. A map is never finished, because no sooner is it ‘complete’ then new data becomes available.

It was the advent of plate tectonics in the 1960s that changed perceptions of paleogeography in exploration, when it became clear that reconstructed space could provide insights into the juxtaposition and origin of different play elements. The applications of paleogeography were further expanded with the work of Fred Ziegler's Paleogeographic Atlas Project at The University of Chicago, who used early computer systems to manage and build maps, and who also reconstructed the paleo-landscape itself.

In this talk we will look more closely at the history of paleogeography and what lessons can be learned as we enter the age of 'big data' and AI in exploration.