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A View on the Past, Present, and Future Use of Paleoclimate Modeling in Hydrocarbon Exploration


Identifying widespread, thick organic-rich source rocks is thought to be critical to finding productive petroleum systems; source rocks are also known to form in a limited number of settings and conditions, as well as during unique time intervals when the world's oceans experienced widespread anoxia. These settings, conditions, and times often involve some element of paleoclimate – elements such as upwelling conditions, currents, temperature, salinity, and tidal sweep. Unequivocal and reliable paleoclimate data are rarely available in the rock record, so explorationists have, for a long time, turned to global paleoclimate models to try to understand and locate conditions that are favorable for the formation of widespread rich source rocks. Paleoclimate models have also been used to constrain reservoir distribution, such as sand ergs. Legacy contributions by Agassiz (1840), Chamberlin (1906) and Köppen & Wegener (1924) laid the groundwork for an expanded understanding of the role of paleoclimate in resource exploration. From the early hand-wrought models of Ziegler et al (1977) and Parrish et al (1982), to the early simple computer-based simulations of Scotese and Summerhayes (1986), and the sophisticated computer-based Global Circulation Models of Barron et al (1984), the techniques have become more and more sophisticated, and the information available to be extracted is broader and broader. The new techniques also draw in specialists from widely divergent disciplines, and by using increasingly better paleogeographic models stretching back into deep time, no longer is the only goal to predict upwelling-related marine source rocks – current techniques can now not only identify prospective areas for the potential deposition of numerous source, reservoir, and seal rocks, they can also suggest thicknesses, richness, and preservation potential (e.g., Merlin+ from CGG-Robertson or Gandolph (Scotese et al, 2008)). As our ability to understand and model paleoclimate continues to improve, the potential for even more and better petroleum system-related geological elements will also increase.