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Late Cenozoic Development and Sediment Budgets Offshore West Greenland – any Implications for the Hydrocarbon Potential?

Stig-Morten Knutsen, Nicolai P. Arendt, Mette K. Runge Martin P. Brandt, and Jan Stilling
Nunaoil AS, PO Box 579, 3900 Nuuk Greenland

Introduction & Data

Oil and gas exploration offshore West Greenland (Figure 1) started already in the late sixties - early seventies with acquisition of seismic, magnetic and gravity surveys. The last 40 years exploration activity has seen its ups and downs, but the last five years a significant activity increase has taken place.

Acreage open for exploration offshore the west coast of Greenland stretches from the Labrador Sea in the south, through the Davis Strait and northwards to the Baffin Bay in the north. This represents approximately 737,000 km2, of which currently more than 200,000km2 which is held in 20 licenses with nine different joint-venture groups.

To date only 10 offshore wells have been drilled in the area which is comparable to the total size of the North Sea. No commercial discoveries have been made, but recent offshore drilling has shown encouraging result confirming the presence of two oil types with different origins.

The data applied in this study consists of a regional seismic 2D database of approximately 120 000 line km and released data from six wells, five from the 1970s and one from 2000. These are located between 63o30’N to 68oN and have been used for calibration of late Cenozoic horizons.

Method and Settings

This paper presents regional seismic interpretation and mapping of the late Cenozoic offshore W Greenland. The aim is to discuss sediment thickness distributions combined with hiatuses and possible vertical movements. A first pass evaluation of these processes’ effect on the petroleum systems will be discussed.

Combining isopach maps with structural and seismic stratigraphic mapping makes it possible to identify: i) areas and periods of erosion represented by truncation of deeper reflections or ii) deposition by aggradation and / or progradation represented by downlapping / onlapping and infilling seismic patterns.

In addition to the seismic stratigraphic analysis, the use of vitrinite reflectance values (Ro) in wells has been applied. Vitrinite preserves a registration and a record of temperature, it is irreversible and reflects the deepest burial, or really the highest temperature, the rocks have experienced.

It should be noted that the significant size of the area mapped, the immature exploration status of the acreage, and areas with complex geology including layers of basalts and intrusives which hampers the seismic imaging and interpretation, do introduce uncertainty to the assessment.

The evaluation at this stage is at a qualitative more than a quantitative stage. However, the large scale differences observed from the Labrador Sea in the south to the Baffin Bay in the north, and the relative changes observed between the different stratigraphic intervals, are believed to reflect actual and important geological differences.


For the late Cenozoic two horizons have been defined and mapped; the Mid-Miocene unconformity and Base Quaternary. In addition, a key reference horizon mapped and discussed is the Mid-Eocene unconformity.

Well tie for the Mid-Eocene and partly for the Mid-Miocene horizons is fairly good. The Base Quaternary is to a less degree defined in the wells mainly due to the lack of samples and / or returns to seabed from this interval (e.g. Rolle 1985, Piasecki 2003).

The Mid-Eocene reflection, which in wells corresponds to a middle Eocene hiatus (Nøhr-Hansen 2003), has previously been mapped and published from offshore SW Greenland, W Greenland / Davis Strait and NW Greenland / Baffin Bay (Sørensen 2006, Gregersen & Bidstrup 2008, Gregersen 2008). In some areas the Middle Eocene unconformity coincides with the younger Middle Miocene unconformity and in Qulleq-1well this represent a hiatus of ~40 Ma separating the Neogene from the Palaeogene (Piasecki 2003). The Mid-Eocene reflection shows truncation of deeper reflections in areas as the Fylla Structural Complex (Sørensen 2006), and along the Ikermiut Ridge, the Hellefisk Structure, and the Ilulissat High (Gregersen and Bidstrup (2008). Although the reflection and associated seismic stratigraphy analysis indicates erosion over several of the structural highs offshore W Greenland, the horizon appears to become more conform to deeper horizons in the northern Nuuk Basin, the Kangâmiut- and Sisimiut Basins as well as in the Melville Bay Graben and the Kivioq Basin in the Baffin Bay area.

The Mid-Miocene reflection shows truncation of deeper horizons and is characterized by onlap or downlap of above or younger horizons. This reflection is by correlation to wells, interpreted to represent the base of the late Cenozoic, and as indicated above it is believed to coincide with the Mid-Eocene event in the Fylla Bank area (Piasecki 2003). However, moving north of the Fylla Bank, into areas as the northern Nuuk-, Sisimiut- and Ikermiut Basins, an interval between the two surfaces can be mapped from seismic data. This succession is believed to be of Middle to Late Eocene age (Nøhr- Hansen 2003, Gregersen og Bidstrup 2008) and might also include (early?) Oligocene deposits (Sørensen 2006). The Mid-Miocene horizon also represents the base of a pronounced overall westwards prograding and aggrading wedge which on a regional scale becomes better defined moving from south to north along the offshore W Greenland.

On the available seismic data, and within the regional grid applied, the Base Quaternary horizon as mapped here is observed as one of several horizons truncating deeper levels and the interval above appears to represent phases of progradation and aggradation.

The interval constrained by the Mid-Miocene at top and Mid-Eocene at base has its largest thicknesses in the Baffin Bay area; in the Melville Bay Graben and Kivioq Basin. Increased thicknesses are also observed in the Ikermiut-, Sisimiut- and Kangâmiut Basins. In the very far south, in the Labrador Sea outside of Cape Farewell, increased thicknesses are also observed in what today is very deep water. Areas where the interval is thin are especially seen in the southern part of the Nuuk- and Lady Franklin Basins including the Fylla Structural Complex, and also in the Basalt Province west and northwest of the Disko Island and Nuussuaq Peninsula.

Due to the overall westward prograding and aggrading units observed overlying the Mid-Miocene horizon and to Seabed, combined with the somewhat lack of clear change in seismic stratigraphic patterns across the Base Quaternary reflection, a total isopach of what here is informally called late Cenozoic has been constructed between Mid-Miocene and Seabed. In the Baffin Bay the late Cenozoic shows a significant thickness increase from where it is eroded along the coast in the east and westwards to the present day shelf edge and beyond. Except for the truncated and thinned areas towards the coast, the thinnest parts of this interval is also observed in a zone surrounding the Hellefisk-1 and Ikermiut-1 wells, corresponding to the northern parts of the Sisimiut- and the Ikermiut Basins, respectively. The late Cenozoic is thin over the Fylla Structural Complex and over the Hecla- and Maniitsoq Highs. In the area south of 67oN, the main parts of the Nuuk Basin and the southernmost part of the Sisimiut Basin increased thickness compared to surrounding areas is observed.

An isopach between the Base Quaternary and Seabed reveals a depositional pattern that appears to correlate to present day troughs which again could be remnant ice drainage patterns; two to three significant depocentres can be found at the mouth of bathymetric troughs in the Baffin Bay. Another major depocentre is located outside Disko Island and Nuussuaq Peninsula, possibly mirroring Quaternary deposition following glacial activity draining out from the central parts of the Greenland Massif. A thick offshore Quaternary interval also seems to be located offshore and west of the towns of Nuuk, Maniitsoq and Sisimiut.

Regional analysis of the isopachs gives valuable relative geographical and stratigraphical information concerning possible erosion / non-deposition and subsidence / accumulation. However it is not possible from these data to quantitatively assess the amount of erosion that is represented by the truncation observed at the Mid-Eocene and Mid-Miocene reflections

Based on extrapolation of offshore surfaces and calibration to Ro data in the GRO#3 well onshore Nuussuaq, Chalmers (2000) suggested that onshore West Greenland appears to have undergone 2.5 - 3km uplift in Neogene times.

As part of this study a 1D-basin modeling of offshore W Greenland wells was performed by employing the software package ‘Genesis’. The aim was to try to quantitatively estimate the amount of eroded section in the particular wells.

Initially, the wells were thermally constrained and calibrated between measured and modelled Ro-values. Various thicknesses of hypothetical missing (eroded) section were then added / ‘inserted’ and modelled at chosen Cenozoic levels to obtain best fit between observed and modelled vitrinite reflectance or Ro values. In for example the Ikermiut-1 well the 1D-modelling was based on the geothermal gradient of 29°C/1000m. The best accommodated fit between observed and modelled Ro-values across the Mid-Eocene level correspond to km-scale missing section at this well location


The structural elements offshore west Greenland was most likely formed by the two main rift episodes; one in the Early to Middle Cretaceous and one in Late Cretaceous – Early Palaeocene prior to the start of sea floor spreading in the Labrador Sea in mid Palaeocene times (Whittaker et al. 1997, Dam et al. 1998, Chalmers and Pulvertaft 2001, Sørensen 2006, Gregersen and Bidstrup 2008).

In an attempt to construct a schematic late Cenozoic geological development with emphasis on periods of uplift and erosion relative to subsidence and deposition (Figure 2), several methods have been integrated:

  1. Seismic stratigraphic methods and identification of patterns suggesting intervals and areas of erosion or deposition
  2. Geographical and stratigraphical assessment / use of isopach maps
  3. Estimation of erosion based on Ro values in exploration wells
  4. Correlation of onshore uplift periods with offshore response


A major Eocene hiatus spanning the early Lutetian is observed in wells offshore W Greenland. In Hellefisk-1 and Ikermiut-1wells the hiatus spans Early and Middle Eocene, whereas in the more southward located well Kangâmiut-1 the correlative hiatus spans only Middle (Lutetian) Eocene (Nøhr-Hansen 2003). Chalmers (2000), Sørensen (2006) and Gregersen and Bidstrup (2008) suggest that Late Palaeocene and Early Eocene were periods with sinistral strike-slip movements along the Ungava Fault Zone, which possibly also to a lesser extend influenced the Fylla Structural High and Fylla Fault Complex SW of the main deformation zone. This hiatus coincides with the substantial decrease in the speed of sea-floor spreading in the Labrador Sea (Chalmers and Pulvertaft 2001).

Early to Middle Eocene tectonic movements as described above is in this study believed to be mirrored by the truncation seen on seismic data and represented by the Mid-Eocene reflection. The seismic mapping, the possible coincidences of the erosion to structural movements along the sea- floor rift and possibly the Ungava Fault Zone, but also the fact that no onshore cooling event is reported in this time period (i.e. Bonow et al. 2007, Japsen et al. 2010), could suggest that the erosion in this period was related mainly to structural highs and to a less extent represents a major uplift – and erosion phase – of the W Greenland offshore in general. Due to lack of sediments from this period onshore, it is uncertain if or how this phase affected the Greenland onshore.

After the Mid-Eocene event renewed subsidence resulted in deposition of a succession of middle-late Eocene, and presumably also (early) Oligocene sediments in northern part of the Nuuk-, Kangâmiut- and Sisimiut Basins (Sørensen 2006). During this period the onshore areas of the Disko Bay appear to have been subaerially exposed and possibly uplifted in the latest Eocene to earliest Oligocene based on deposition of sub-aerial basalts (Schmidt et al. 2005) and by integration of AFTA data (Japsen et al. 2006). This might suggest that while deposition commenced offshore, the onshore areas was still exposed to uplift and / or erosion in the middle-late Eocene to early Oligocene.

Areas with decreased thicknesses of the interval above the Mid-Eocene unconformity might reflect exposure to erosion during the Early to Middle Eocene and / or positive features existing during the Late Eocene. It should however, be stressed that other factors, such as variations in depositional environments, types and volumes of sediments available and the amount of erosion at the level of the horizon defining the top of the interval – i.e. Mid-Miocene – also influence the distribution of the post Mid-Eocene thicknesses. However, on the regional scale as the mapping herein has been performed, the isopach distribution between the Mid-Eocene and Mid-Miocene still is believed to illustrate some important features; the relatively thin intervals in the southern part of the Nuuk- and Lady Franklin Basins and the Fylla Structural Complex, and also the Hecla- and Maniitsoq Highs can indicate that these areas were positive areas compared to the areas outside S Greenland and that they also were positive or uplifted areas relative to the Kangâmiut and Sisimiut Basins. Further north, along the Ikermiut Basin, the Hellefisk Structure, and continuing to the Ilulissat Graben and the continuing into the Basalt Province, the interval remains fairly thin. When crossing the Upernavik Escarpment and in the Baffin Bay, the thickness increases in the basins and grabens, but remains thin over the older structural highs as the Kivioq Ridge and the Melville Bay High. This could indicate that the older established structural features in the Baffin Bay also existed during this period.

Oligocene to Middle Miocene

Onshore, a regional developed planation surface of low relief formed close to sea-level in the period from (earliest) Oligocene to (middle) Miocene. This ‘Upper Planation Surface’ – UPS, is assumed to correlate to onset of cooling phase C2 based on onshore AFTA data (Bonow et al. 2007, Japsen et al. 2010). According to (Sørensen 2006) the larger scale tectonic setting west of Greenland changed in Oligocene when compression, volcanism and uplift caused erosion. An interplay between sea-level fall and cessation of the sinistral strike-slip movements along the Ungava Fault Zone, possibly caused by the collision of the Greenland plate with northernmost Canada could explain the Oligocene uplift (Sørensen 2006). The offshore hiatus might also be correlated to the final cessation of sea-floor spreading between Canada and Greenland (Chalmers and Pulvertaft 2001).

The above regional tectonic and structural movements are in this work assumed to be represented offshore by the Mid-Miocene horizon. From the seismic stratigraphic mapping this unconformity appears to be more pronounced towards the east, possibly supporting a correlation to the regional uplift of Greenland as suggested by Bonow et al. (2007) and Japsen et al. (2010). The time span, and also the amount of erosion, along the hiatus represented by the Mid-Miocene reflection are thus believed to increase towards the mainland and decreasing westwards. Due to lack of well calibration north of 67oN, the age considerations of the correlative hiatus becomes more uncertain offshore the Disko Island and in the Baffin Bay. Sørensen (2006) suggest that the hiatus might decrease in the area west of the Disko Island and that lower Oligocene sediments might be present below the Mid-Miocene horizon here. In the Baffin Bay the Mid-Miocene reflection truncates deeper horizons in the eastern parts such as the Melville Bay Graben and the Melville Bay Ridge, suggesting erosion took place here. In areas further west, as the Kivioq Basin the surface appears more conform to deeper levels, which can indicate less erosion and also a longer preserved record of sediments.

Post Middle Miocene / Neogene and Quaternary

Middle to Late Miocene sediments were encountered in W Greenland offshore wells (Rolle 1985, Piasecki 2003, Gregersen and Bidstrup 2008), suggesting that renewed subsidence of the shelf began after the events that formed the Mid-Miocene horizon. The subsidence accelerated southwards and affected the Labrador Sea strongly (Sørensen 2006).

From onshore AFTA data two Neogene uplift events at approximately 11-10 Ma and 7-2 Ma (cooling phases C3 and C4) can be identified, and are from geomorphological studies correlated to the ‘Lower Planation Surface’ - LPS interpreted along the W Greenland onshore by Bonow et al. (2007), Japsen et al. (2010). In the Qulleq-1 well an approximately 2 Ma hiatus separates open marine fine grained Late Miocene sediments from Early Pliocene sediments assumed to be deposited in the same environment (Piasecki 2003).

Onset of glaciations on Greenland might locally have started as early as Late Eocene – Early Oligocene based on ice-rafted debris (IRD) found in ODP site 913 in the Norwegian-Greenland Sea (Eldrett et al. 2007). Glaciations influencing the western part of Greenland are by Chalmers (2000) and Kårstgård and Nielsen (1989) suggested to commence about 5 Ma, but as reported by Arthur et al. (1989) the occurrence of dropstones in upper Miocene strata in ODP Site 645 suggest the presence of at least seasonal sea-ice in the Baffin Bay approximately 8.5 Ma ago.

Thickness of the late Cenozoic interval, as here defined between the Mid-Miocene horizon to Seabed, shows significant variations in the W Greenland offshore; The Hellefisk- and the Fylla Bank areas show thinner cover than basins to the south and north. In parts of the Davis Strait the late Cenozoic is thin. The Nuuk- and partly also the Sisimiut Basins show increased volumes, and in In the Baffin Bay the interval shows a profound increase in thickness from east to west. In the Melville Bay area the outline of the northern part of the Melville Bay Ridge can be identified on the isopach map, suggesting that this might be a long-lived high.

Separating the Quaternary from the total late Cenozoic isopach map partly shows the same patterns and trends, but this younger interval to a larger degree illustrate the assumed glacial influence and drainage patterns.

Petroleum system implications

If an area is characterized by one or repeated periods of erosion, the amount of post-erosion subsidence and overburden is crucial in terms of its effect on hydrocarbon systems in the area. The more pronounced erosion, and less overburden, the more severe the effect. On the other hand, if an area shows no or little indication of erosion, but more a continued subsidence and accommodation, the effect on the hydrocarbon system is easily assessed and more straightforward evaluated.

Uplift and erosion of sedimentary basins have profound effects on any hydrocarbon systems in the basin. A sometimes used term connected to uplifted, eroded sedimentary basins where removal of overburden has taken place is ‘exhumation’ (see Ring et al. 1999). Exhumed basins are frequently evaluated in the same way as ‘normal’ subsiding basins, leading to errors and unrealistic expectations. Exhumation leads to cooling and pressure decrease and these factors add a degree of difficulty to petroleum exploration. Some key implications that exhumation can have on petroleum systems are summarized by Doré et al. (2002a, –b): 1) sealing horizons are removed and / or their effectiveness is severely reduced; 2) faults are often reactivated causing them to become conduits for hydrocarbon leakage to the surface; 3) source rocks will be at a higher degree of maturation than expected from their present depth and will cease to generate upon cooling; 4) potentially attractive reservoirs may be overcompacted and downgraded; 5) pressure reduction during exhumation causes oil accumulations and formation water to exsolve gas, causing gas flushing and the spillage of oil; 6) regional tilting during uplift results in changes to trap configuration and fluid migration deposits.

However, given the above mentioned factors, provinces that have been influenced by exhumation may still be prospective; examples are the Snøhvit and Goliath Fields in the Barents Sea, the Claire Field West of Shetland and the Beatrice Field in the Inner Morray Firth Basin.

The previous discussed late Cenozoic development will influence any petroleum systems that might be present in the offshore W Greenland:

Areas that has not been influenced by uplift and erosion, and which have seen general subsidence and accommodation can be regarded as ‘straightforward’ in terms of petroleum systems; the temperature history and source rock maturation follows the gradual and uninterrupted subsidence, the traps can be assumed to have kept their integrity and the reservoir is at its deepest depths today. Along a schematic profile from the coast in the east across the shelf towards the deeper basin areas in the west, the areas least critical for the petroleum system in terms of exhumation will generally be the western- or deepest and most basinward areas. If applied in a map view of W Greenland offshore, and integrating the observations of truncation / erosion with the isopach maps, ‘no problem’ areas in terms of exhumation are suggested to be found:

  • Locally outside SW Greenland, mainly due to the (late) Cenozoic subsidence and no indications of erosion in this period here.
  • In the Nuuk-, Kangâmiut- and Sisimiut Basins which even though they are located on the platform areas between 62°30' and 68°N, appear to have been long lived basins which may not have experienced much uplift and / or erosion. These basins are also covered by a fairly significant Neogene and Quaternary succession, indicating a direct approach to source rock maturity assessments and also preservation of any traps.
  • Large parts of the southern to western Baffin Bay, mainly due to the late Cenozoic subsidence and in places very thick Neogene and Quaternary successions.

At the other end of the spectrum in terms of criticality given the late Cenozoic evolution, are the areas that have been significantly affected by uplift and / or erosion. Acreage closest to the coastline of Greenland has probably seen at least two or three uplift phases from Eocene to recent. These phases might also have been accompanied by tilting which might have changed the trap configuration through time. The most landward areas along the shelf is probably also the areas that has been the most and longest influenced by glacial activities, and factors as glacio-isostasy and off-loading effects should be considered when assessing this acreage. In the following areas possible (late) Cenozoic exhumation are suggested to be taken into account when assessing the exploration potential:

  • Platform areas along the coastline in general, and including the Nukik Platform, the Disko High, the western parts of the Basalt Province north of Disko Island and also the footwall of the Melville Bay Fault.
  • The Hecla- and Maniitsoq Highs and adjacent areas have very thin late Cenozoic sediment cover, indicating that any possible play should be carefully considered in terms of timing for hydrocarbon generation and migration and, pending the depth of a possible play, also the retention of hydrocarbons.
  • The complex structural pattern in the areas of Ikermiut Ridge, and -Basin, and acreage continuing from here and NE to the Ikermiut Graben which is influenced by thrust faulting (i.e. Gregersen and Bidstrup 2008), have thin late Cenozoic overburden. This, and the indications of significant erosion in the Ikermiut-1 well, suggests that here the possible influences of exhumation should be considered.

As ‘intermediate zones’ there will be acreage where hydrocarbon systems could have been influenced by exhumation, but where timing and magnitude are more ambiguous. These are areas that typically could have been uplifted and eroded but have later experienced subsidence causing accommodation and younger overburden.The amount of (older) uplift and erosion compared to the (younger) subsidence and burial should, however be carefully considered. If the late subsidence and accommodation is less than the previous uplift and erosion, this could have critical implications for the hydrocarbon systems. However, if the younger overburden is larger than what previous was removed, the effect might be less crucial. The timing of any such uplift / erosion and possible later subsidence / accommodation should also be carefully compared to hydrocarbon generation and -migration and should be related to trap formation, geometry and retention. Acreage where it is might be considered to assess the possible effect of (late) Cenozoic exhumation is:

  • The Paamiut Basin, the Atammik High and parts of the Fylla West Structural Complex, where indications of erosion can be seen, but the timing and magnitude of the erosion are from available data uncertain. However, a fairly thick Neogene and Quaternary succession could mitigate any effect the earlier erosion could have had on a possible hydrocarbon system.
  • Parts of the Ilulissat Graben Edge and the Aasiaat Basin, including the western part of the Basalt Province, which also could have experienced some erosion, but the timing and magnitude, is uncertain also because volcanics in places hamper interpretation and mapping. However the amount of accommodation and deposition especially during the Neogene and Quaternary in and adjacent to the Aasiaat Basin could have had a positive influence on the petroleum system of these areas.
  • The northernmost parts of the Melville Bay Ridge and where the Melville Bay Graben narrows to the N / NW have, as described above and from analysis of the isopach maps, been positive features also into the late Cenozoic. It is thus suggested that any tectonic movements in these areas may be considered with regards to possible exhumation and influence on the petroleum system.


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Figure 1 Structural elements of the offshore West Greenland.

Figure 2 Sketch E-W profile offshore West Greenland indicating some main geological development scenarios from Early / Middle Eocene to present. Possible vertical movements are given with arrows and onset of offshore cooling episodes C2-C4 as identified by Japsen et al. (2010) is indicated. A qualitative assessment of areas or provinces where late Cenozoic exhumation might be considered is suggested.



AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90130©2011 3P Arctic, The Polar Petroleum Potential Conference & Exhibition, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 30 August-2 September, 2011.