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New insights into seismic stratigraphy of shallow-water

progradational sequences: Subseismic clinoforms


Hongliu Zeng
1
, Xiaomin Zhu
2
, and Rukai Zhu
3
Abstract
Seismic clinoforms are the key building blocks for constructing the seismic stratigraphy of progradational
depositional sequences. However, not all progradational systems are necessarily represented by seismic clino-
forms. We evaluated the definition and interpretation of progradational systems that do not associate with seis-
mic clinoforms. Nonclinoform (or subseismic clinoforms) seismic facies are mainly related to shallow-water
deltas where the thickness of a prograding clinoformcomplex is too thin to be imaged as an offlapping reflection
configuration. The clinoform detection limit for clinoform imaging is defined as one wavelength (the thickness
of two seismic events) and is related to the predominant frequency of the seismic data and the velocity of
the sediments. Three examples from the Songliao Basin of China and Gulf of Mexico illustrated ancient
shallow-water deltas with various morphologies in lacustrine and marine environments by integrating the analy-
sis of the core, wireline logs, and amplitude stratal slices made from nonclinoform seismic events. A seismic
model of an outcrop carbonate clinoform complex in west Texas further demonstrated the seismic frequency
control on clinoform seismic stratigraphy, including transitions between different types of clinoforms and
between clinoforms and nonclinoform seismic facies. Ambiguity in interpreting nonclinoform seismic
facies can be reduced by high-resolution acquisition, high-frequency enhancement processing, and seismic
sedimentology.
Introduction
The term clinoform is proposed by Rich (1951) to
depict the shape of a depositional surface at the scale
of the entire continental margin (Figure 1). A clinoform
results from the varying rate of deposition and water
depth, its upper end connecting to a flat, shallow-
water undaform and its lower end graduating into a
horizontal, deep-water fondoform. Multiple clinoformal
depositional units compose a unique, easy-to-recognize
stratigraphic pattern in the continental margin.
Mitchum et al. (1977) adapt the term and use it to
characterize a group of very special seismic reflections
that are typically composed of topset, foreset, and bot-
tomset (roughly corresponding to undaform, clinoform,
and fondoform of Rich [1951], respectively). A clino-
form was interpreted as strata in which significant dep-
osition is produced by lateral outbuilding or basinward
prograding, forming the gently sloping depositional sur-
faces (clinoforms). Although seismic clinoforms can re-
sult from any prograding depositional process, they are
generally produced by deltas that prograded seaward
(Sangree and Widmier, 1977). Berg (1982) further estab-
lishes a relationship between some different deltaic
facies and distinctive clinoform seismic facies. Seismic
clinoform patterns are also common in ramp, bank,
and platform carbonate depositional systems (e.g.,
Belopolsky and Droxler, 2004; Droste and Steenwinkel,
2004; Eberli et al., 2004; Isern et al., 2004).
Widely recognized as among the most common
depositional stratal patterns, clinoforms are one of the
fundamental building blocks of seismic- and sequence-
stratigraphic models (e.g., Mitchum et al., 1977;
Vail et al., 1977; Van Wagoner et al., 1988). However,
most documented seismic clinoforms are related to large
shelf-edge deltas developed in margins of deep-water ba-
sins where a clinoformmay have significant (high tens to
hundreds of meters) accommodation and therefore be
readily apparent. In other environments, those having
shallow water depth and less accommodation, the clino-
forms are thinner and more difficult to identify using
seismic data. Prograding deltaic systems developed in
shallow-water environments, such as along the coast
1
The University of Texas at Austin, Jackson School of Geosciences, Bureau of Economic Geology, Austin, Texas, USA. E-mail: hongliu.zeng@beg
.utexas.edu.
2
China University of Petroleum, Beijing, China. E-mail: xmzhu@cup.edu.cn.
3
Research Institute of Petroleum Exploration and Development, PetroChina, Beijing, China. E-mail: zrk@petrochina.com.cn.
Manuscript received by the Editor 25 February 2013; published online 6 August 2013. This paper appears in INTERPRETATION, Vol. 1, No. 1
(August 2013); p. SA35SA51, 18 FIGS., 1 TABLE.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1190/INT-2013-0017.1. 2013 Society of Exploration Geophysicists and American Association of Petroleum Geologists. All rights reserved.
t
Special section: Interpreting stratigraphy from geophysical data
Interpretation / August 2013 SA35
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in shallow-marine on-shelf, intracratonic basins, and in
postrift continental basins, are especially hard to recog-
nize using seismic data. In these areas, where sediments
are only several meters to low tens of meters thick, seis-
mic clinoform patterns are commonly poorly imaged. As
a result, these clinoforms have received much less atten-
tion from seismic interpreters. In fact, except for some
moderately thin sequences that can be recognized as
shingled clinoform complexes (Mitchum et al., 1977),
many thin deltaic sequences have probably been mistak-
enly interpreted as other facies because they lack dis-
tinctive seismic clinoforms. In this study, we define
seismic nonclinoforms (or subseismic clinoforms) as
seismic events produced by prograding depositional se-
quences that cannot be recognized visually as seismic
clinoforms.
The purpose of this study is to discuss and interpret
thin deltas and prograding depositional systems below
seismic detection power. Geologic and seismic indica-
tions of deltaic systems are discussed. The limits of
using clinoform seismic facies to characterize deltaic
systems are pointed out. Specific examples of subsur-
face delta sequences without clinoform geometry on
seismic sections are described and evaluated. Seismic
resolution control on imaging of clinoform seismic ar-
chitecture is investigated. Seismic techniques that can
be used to detect nonclinoform sequences are outlined.
In this paper, carbonate progradational systems
are discussed to a lesser degree. Although lithology
and depositional processes in carbonate depositional
sequences are different from those in clastic systems,
links between clinoformal surfaces and depositional
rate/water depth are similar, which leads to similar
impedance architecture and comparable seismic facies.
Therefore, our observations in deltas could safely be
applied to carbonate systems, and vice versa.
Indication of deltaic systems
Deltaic systems show a wide complexity in the geo-
logic record. Many of these systems can be interpreted
in seismic data in certain situations. An understanding
of the geologic conditions of delta sequence develop-
ment is essential to predict their seismic responses.
Following is a brief description of various deltaic sys-
tems and how they relate to seismic interpretability.
Deltas in modern and geologic record
Galloway (1975) defines a delta as a contiguous
mass of sediment, partly subaerial, deposited around
the point where a stream enters a standing body of
water. Galloway (1975) also classifies deltas into three
basic types, or end members, on the basis of the energy
source that dominates the deltaic building process:
fluvial-dominated delta, wave-dominated delta, and
tide-dominated delta. These basic delta types are char-
acterized by significantly different landform geometry
(Figure 2). Fluvial-dominated deltas are elongate to
lobate in shape, whereas wave- and tide-dominated del-
tas are arcuate and funnel shaped, respectively. Facies
patterns associated with each delta type are also differ-
ent. Adding to the complexity, although a deltaic system
may be controlled by one of the energy sources, other
energy sources are usually also active to some degree,
leading to mixed geometry and facies patterns among
the end members.
Postma (1990) further classifies fluvial-dominated
deltaic systems on the basis of water depth in the re-
ceiving basin. Shallow-water deltas are developed in
water depths of low tens of meters, which would in-
clude on-shelf, or shelf-type, deltas (Ethridge and
Wescott, 1984) in marine basins and lacustrine and
other deltas related to other shelves. Shallow-water del-
tas are normally represented by three physiographic
zones delta plain, delta front, and prodelta
similar to those in standard models of fluvial-dominated
deltas (e.g., Galloway and Hobday, 1983). The slope
near the river mouth and the delta-front can be gentle
(shoal-water type) or steep (Gilbert-type), depending
on the channel depth versus the basin depth. The
QAe1675
Undathem
Clinothem
Basement
Undaform Clinoform Land
Fondothem
Fondoform
Depth of
wave base
Sea
surface
Figure 1. Diagram showing the original concept of the clino-
form defined by Rich (1951).
Fluvial dominated
Tide dominated
Wave dominated
T
i
d
a
l
Lafourche
(Mississippi)
Lobate
Elongate
Rhone River
Modern
Mississippi
Gulf of Papua
0 10 mi
QAe1676
C
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0 10 mi
0 10 mi
0 10 mi
Figure 2. Modern examples of three basic types of deltas
(modified from Fisher et al., 1969).
SA36 Interpretation / August 2013
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general stratigraphic architecture of a fluvial-
dominated shallow-water delta is summarized in
Figure 3a. In the dip (basinward) profile, individual
delta lobes that formed in outbuilding deltaic episodes
compose a clinoform complex, with sandy sediments
mostly accumulated in the upper portion of the com-
plex (topsets and upper foresets). The combination
of the sandy sediments forms a lithostratigraphic unit
having a relatively smooth top and probably an uneven
base. In the strike section, multiple delta lobes formed
at different times and accumulated as irregular-shaped
mounds, rarely showing parallel internal stratal bedding
in seismic sections.
According to Postma (1990), deep-water deltas occur
in water depths deeper than tens of meters to hundreds
of meters and include shelf-edge deltas, slope-type
deltas (Ethridge and Wescott, 1984), and other systems
not necessarily related to true shelf breaks (e.g., in a
fault-controlled deep lake). The biggest difference be-
tween deep-water deltas and shallow-water deltas is
that in addition to the three physiographic zones
found in shallow-water deltas, deep-water deltas also
extend to a suspension settling and gravity-driven mass
transport zone and a deep-water turbidite zone beyond
the normal prodelta zone on the long, inclined, muddy
basin floor (Figure 3b). Sands in this system would
be preferentially distributed at the top (delta-plain
and delta-front sands) and base (turbidites), separated
by thick muddy sediments (prodelta and deep-water
mudstones). Internal stratal bedding is relatively
smooth and easy to correlate in dip and strike sections.
Shallow-water deltaic sedimentation is a common
process in modern environments. Examples include
Lena and Volga deltas in marine basins (Olariu and
Bhattacharya, 2006) and Wax Lake, Atchafalaya (Olariu
and Bhattacharya, 2006), and Poyang Lake deltas
a) Sigmoid
b) Oblique
c) Complex sigmoid-oblique
d) Shingled
QAe1679
Figure 4. Reflection configurations of fluvial- and wave-
dominated deltas (modified from Mitchum et al. [1977];
initially interpreted by Mitchum et al. [1977] and Sangree
and Widmier [1977] and reinterpreted by Berg [1982]).
2
5
H
z
100 Hz
5
0
H
z
60 H
z
3
0
H
z
4
0
H
z
Velocity (m/s)
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(
m
)
80 Hz
4000 0 0 0 6 0 0 0 5 0 0 0 2 3000
20
0
40
60
80
100
120
140
20
0
40
60
80
100
120
140
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z
Clastics
Carbonates
200 Hz
QAe1680
Figure 5. H
min
in time and depth as a function of the pre-
dominant frequency of the seismic data and the velocity of
prograding sediments.
Shallow-water delta
Deep-water delta
Dip section
Strike section
Meters to low tens of meters
High tens to hundreds of meters
1
5
4
3
2
1
3
2
Sandstone Shale
QAe1678
a)
b)
Figure 3. Models of fluvial-dominated deltas illustrating
their internal clinoform framework and gross sand distribu-
tion patterns: (a) Shallow-water delta; (b) deep-water
delta; 1 delta plain, 2 delta front, 3 prodelta, 4
suspension settling and gravity-driven mass transport zone,
and 5 = deep-water turbidite zone.
Interpretation / August 2013 SA37
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(Zou et al., 2008) in lacustrine basins. Several authors
investigate many ancient subsurface examples of shal-
low-water deltas deposited in shallowintracratonic sea-
ways (e.g., Busch, 1959, 1971; Cleaves and Broussard,
1980; Rasmussen et al., 1985; Bhattacharya and Walker,
1991; Li et al., 2011; Olariu et al., 2012) and in lacustrine
basins (e.g., Cretaceous Songliao Basin, Lou et al., 1999;
Triassic Ordos Basin, Zou et al., 2008). However, com-
pared with the large number of investigations of deep-
water deltas or deltas at the shelf edge (e.g., Carvajal
and Steel, 2009; Covault et al., 2009; Dixon et al., 2012),
the number of shallow-water deltas described in an-
cient deposits is very limited.
Deltas represented by clinoform seismic facies
Mitchum et al. (1977) promote the use of external
shape and internal configuration on
seismic profiles to interpret stratal
configuration, facies patterns, and depo-
sitional environments of prograding
stratigraphic sequences. In particular,
their recognition of sigmoid, oblique,
complex, and shingled clinoform seismic
facies (Figure 4) and the general geologic
interpretation of these facies establishes
a foundation for stratigraphic evaluation
of seismic clinoforms. A sigmoid clino-
form pattern (Figure 4a) refers to a rela-
tively low-energy sedimentary regime;
an oblique facies (Figure 4b) would oc-
cur in a relatively high-energy sedimen-
tary regime. A complex sigmoid-oblique
model (Figure 4c) results from alternat-
ing high- and low-energy sedimentary
regimes. Whereas these three types of
clinoforms are associated with deep-
water basins, a shingled clinoform
configuration (Figure 4d) represents depositional units
prograding into shallow waters.
Berg (1982) further links different clinoform con-
figurations to some distinctive delta types. The sig-
moid, oblique, and complex sigmoid-oblique patterns
(Figure 4a4c) are representative seismic facies of a
deep-water fluvial-dominated delta. The sigmoid seismic
pattern is composed of continuous and S-shaped
clinoforms (Figure 4a). Without toplapping, sigmoid pat-
terns usually occur in low-energy, delta interlobe areas
lacking sandy deposits. The oblique pattern (Figure 4b)
is characterized by clinoforms that terminate updip by
toplap and downdip by downlap that bound the deltaic
sequence. This pattern represents a high-energy delta
where the sand-rich delta plain is coincident with the
upper horizontal events (undaform). The seismic clino-
formis equivalent to shale-prone prodelta facies. The ab-
sence of stacking of horizontal events in the delta plain
suggests sediment bypassing on a stable shelf. The com-
plex sigmoid-oblique pattern (Figure 4c) is a result of
alternate high-energy sandy deposition (oblique) and
low-energy shaly deposition (sigmoid) that occurred in
delta-lobe shifting during delta system outbuilding.
The shingled pattern (Figure 4d) appears to indicate a
wave-dominated delta in shallow water. Development
of a wave-dominated delta seems to require a stable shal-
low depositional shelf. Less studied and documented,
tide-dominated deltas are difficult to identify using sim-
ple seismic clinoform patterns.
Table 1. H
min
in meters as a function of the predominant frequency of
the seismic data and the velocity of prograding sediments. Typical
industry data are characterized by a predominant frequency from 20 to
50 Hz.
f (Hz) V 2000
ms
V 3000
ms
V 4000
ms
V 5000
ms
V 6000
ms
20 50.0 75.0 100.0 125.0 150.0
25 40.0 60.0 80.0 100.0 120.0
30 33.3 50.0 66.7 83.3 100.0
40 25.0 37.5 50.0 62.5 75.0
50 20.0 30.0 40.0 50.0 60.0
60 16.7 25.0 33.3 41.7 50.0
80 12.5 18.7 25.0 31.2 37.5
100 10.0 15.0 20.0 25.0 30.0
200 5.0 7.5 10.0 12.5 15.0
0 1200 km
BEIJING
Peoples Republic
of China
0 500 km
48
46
44
50
126 128 130
124
122
Qiqihar
Harbin
Changchun
Daqing
Oilfield
Study
area
Songliao
Basin
QAe1681
N
Figure 6. Cretaceous Songliao Basin of China showing the
study area in the Qijia Depression near the Daqing Oilfield.
SA38 Interpretation / August 2013
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Limits of clinoform seismic facies
Barring any data quality issues related to acquisition
and processing, our ability to use clinoform seismic
stratigraphy to recognize progradational depositional
sequences is largely limited by seismic resolution.
To visually identify a clinoform pattern within a seis-
mic stratigraphic mapping unit, one has to recognize at
least two seismic events with one offlapping the other.
In other words, the unit has to be at least as thick as the
width of two seismic events (one wavelength or cycle)
in two-way traveltime. We call the thickness of such a
seismic stratigraphic mapping unit clinoform detection
limit:
H
min
1000f ; (1)
where f denotes the predominant frequency of the seis-
mic data in hertz (Hz) and H
min
is the clinoform detec-
tion limit in milliseconds (ms). The clinoform detection
limit in depth is related to the predominant frequency of
the seismic data and the velocity of the prograding sedi-
ments (Figure 5, Table 1):
H
min
V2f ; (2)
where V denotes velocity of the sediments in meters per
second (ms) and H
min
is the clinoform detection limit
in meters (m). Most modern seismic data sets are char-
acterized by a predominant frequency ranging from
20 to 100 Hz, corresponding to H
min
(in time) from
10 to 50 ms. In a typical clastic basin, the velocity of
sandstones and shales is usually between 2000 and
4000 ms, resulting in a H
min
(in depth) of 10 to
100 m; in a carbonate formation, rock velocity is signifi-
cantly higher (mostly 5000 6000 ms) and H
min
(in
depth) increases sizably (25150 m).
These simple calculations reveal that seismic clino-
form recognition is reserved to thicker prograding
A A
G21
G42
G41
G32
G31
G22
G12
SQ1
SS1
SS2
SS3
SS4
SS5
SS6
SQ2
SQ3
G11
T
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a
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(
m
s
)
T1
T2
a)
Basinward
2 km
b)
SQ1
SQ2
SQ3
T1
T2
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SS1
SS2
SS3
SS4
SS5
SS6
G21
G42
G41
G32
G31
G22
G12
G11
Third-order
seq. boundary
SP DT High-order
sequence
Fault
fifth fourth third
fifth fourth third
- +
Amplitude
A
A
B
B
QAe1682
2 km
1200
1300
1400
1500
1600
1700
Figure 7. A dip well-seismic section illustrat-
ing the high-frequency depositional sequence
framework and internal nonclinoform reflec-
tion pattern in the Cretaceous Qijia Depres-
sion (modified from Zeng et al., 2012). See
Figure 7a for position. (a) Traveltime section
showing wireline logs, sequence definition,
and well-seismic correlation. (b) Wheeler-
transformed section flattened in relative
geologic time for easy viewing of internal
reflection characteristics. Positions of stratal
slices in Figure 10 are labeled a, b, and c. SP
spontaneous potential log; DT = sonic log.
Interpretation / August 2013 SA39
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depositional sequences or the thicker part of a prograd-
ing depositional sequence. Sequences thinner than H
min
normally do not show as clinoforms on seismic profiles.
Depending on the current status of seismic data quality
in basins around the world, a large number of shallow-
water deltas would fall below H
min
because they devel-
oped in water depths shallower than tens of meters.
These shallow-water deltas are good candidates to be
reflected as nonclinoform seismic patterns. Accord-
ingly, the interpretation of deltas needs to go beyond
the recognition of seismic clinoforms. Lacking visible
clinoforms, shallow-water deltas would routinely go
unrecognized by seismic interpreters. Seismic facies
of those nonclinoformsequences are our major concern
in following sections.
Examples of seismic nonclinoform deltas
In this section, three investigations are presented
as examples of seismic nonclinoform deltas. Without
visible seismic clinoforms, seismic geomorphology
patterns on amplitude stratal slices provide vital infor-
mation for interpreting thin deltaic systems. The pro-
duction of stratal slices has followed the procedure
discussed in Zeng et al. (1998a, 1998b). Where available,
conventional cores and wireline logs have been used to
calibrate the interpretations in these studies.
Qijia depression, Songliao Basin, China
The Songliao Basin of China is a large-scale
Mesozoic-Cenozoic lacustrine basin covering an area
of more than 250,000 km
2
(Figure 6). In lower through
upper Cretaceous strata, postrift deposits as thick as
3000 to 4000 m unconformably overlie synrift strata
and extend beyond the fault blocks to cover the whole
basin (Feng et al., 2010). Lacking true shelf breaks, seis-
mic clinoforms can be seen only along major delta axes
where fluvial systems transported abundant sediment
to the deep part of the lake in the center of the basin
B
B
+ -
Amplitude
2 km
5
0

m
s
QAe1683
5
0

m
s
a
b
c
Figure 8. Strike seismic section showing the internal reflec-
tion pattern in the Cretaceous Qijia Depression. The expected
mounded seismic configuration for a normal deltaic system
(Figure 3b) does not exist. The regional structural trend is cor-
rected for a better view of internal reflection characteristics.
Positions of stratal slices in Figure 10 are labeled a, b, and c.
See Figure 7a for position.
QAe1684
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Depth
(m)
Limestone
Shale
Sandstone
s o t o h p e r o C s e i c a f b u S n o i t c e s d e r o C
GR DT
a)
b)
c)
2121
2122
2123
2124
2125
2126
2127
2128
2129
2130
2131
2132
2120
2133
a)
b)
c)
Figure 9. Description of a cored section in a
well in the Qijia Depression showing Creta-
ceous fluvial-dominated shallow-water delta
deposits. Arrows denote upward-coarsening
grain-size trends. (a) Shallow-lake Ostracoda
limestone; (b) trough-cross-stratified (arrow),
fine-grained distributary-channel sandstone;
(c) medium-grained, blocky sandstone with
shale lag (arrow) on the scoured distributary-
channel base. Cores are oriented up (shal-
lower) to the left.
SA40 Interpretation / August 2013
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(e.g., in the Daqing Oilfield area). Much of the deltaic
sediment was deposited in very gentle slopes around
the basin margin in shallow waters lacking well-
developed clinoforms.
In the Qijia Depression (Figure 6), deltaic sediments
consist of gray and dark-gray mudstone interbedded
with sandstone and siltstone. A wireline-log-based
sequence-stratigraphic correlation (Figure 7a) revealed
multiple higher order sequences (G11 through SS1) in
three third-order sequences (SQ1 through SQ3) in the
Qingshankou Formation (Zeng et al., 2012). In this
22-km-long dip-oriented section, thickness changes
from updip to downdip are minor, revealing a very gen-
tle slope at the time of deposition. Each of the higher
order sequences has an average thickness of approxi-
mately 40 m, which is composed of a relative lowstand
systems tract (LST) at the bottom and a relative high-
stand systems tract (HST) at the top with roughly equal
thickness (20 m).
A Wheeler-transformed equivalent of Figure 7a is
realized with stratal slicing processing (Figure 7b),
which shows a good correlation between well-based
depositional sequences and seismic events. The 3D
seismic data have a frequency range of 10 to 80 Hz
and a dominant frequency of 50 Hz. In this formation,
average velocity is 4000 ms, and the calculated H
min
is 40 m (Table 1). This doubles the H
min
in this forma-
tion for seismic imaging of clinoform complexes in
either LST or HST. As a result, seismic clinoforms
are not imaged. Instead, these seismic events can be
classified as subparallel to discontinuous, variable-
amplitude seismic facies. Each pair of seismic events
(peak at bottom and trough at top) in each of the
high-frequency sequences roughly represents a high-
frequency sequence composed of a relative LST at the
bottom and a relative HST at the top. A strike seismic
section (Figure 8) shows a seismic facies distribution
similar to that in the dip section (Figure 7) and fails
Fault
- +
Amplitude
Shoreline Channel/
lobe
Delta
plain
Delta
front
Prodelta/
lake
Direction of
progradation
2 km 2 km
QAe1685
a)
c)
e)
b)
d)
f)
Figure 10. Three amplitude stratal slices (a,
c, and e) at three high-frequency sequences
(G31, G41, and SS2, respectively, in Figure 7b,
and labeled as a, b, and c in Figures 7b and 8).
These slices interpreted as shallow-water del-
tas are shown in (b, d, and f), respectively.
Shorelines interpreted in (d and f) refer to
position of the successive shorelines during
progradation.
Interpretation / August 2013 SA41
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to reveal any seismic reflection configuration that
resembles the mound geometry associated with typical
prograding delta clinoforms (Figure 3b).
Lithology, grain-size trend, and sedimentary struc-
ture were observed in conventional cores, providing
more direct evidence for classifying depositional facies.
By describing more than 1300 m of core in 11 wells in
the area, we recognized that most subfacies in the core
are related to fluvial-dominated deltaic deposition. For
example, in a long cored section (Figure 9), a typical
facies cycle (from bottom to top) includes gray shale
and thin limestone (Figure 9a) representing shallow-
lake deposition, trough-cross-stratified, fine-grained
sandstone (Figure 9b) from the distributary channel,
and medium-grained, blocky sandstone with shale-clast
lag (Figure 9c) on the scoured distributary-channel
base in the delta front. There are abundant ostracod
fossils (e.g., Cypridea, Candona, Mongolocypris, and
Ziziphocypris) identified in the limestones and
shales, all indicative of a shallow-water environment.
Ranging from 4- to 15-m thick, the upward-coarsening
sequences are a result of progradational processes in
a shallow-water deltaic system (e.g., Olariu and Bhatta-
charya, 2006).
A set of stratal slices was constructed in the interval
between reference events T
1
and T
2
from stacked and
migrated data (Figure 7a). All the stratal slices roughly
follow individual seismic events that are parallel to
one another. Selected slices (Figure 10a, 10c, and
10e) represent three thin LST deltaic depositional sys-
tems in high-order sequences. The most striking seismic
geomorphologic features in these stratal slices are nu-
merous channel patterns and associated amplitude
anomalies of different shapes, representing various
deltaic environments (Figure 10b, 10d, and 10f).
Differences in the facies patterns reflect relative mar-
gin-to-basin positions in the gentle slope of a postrift
lacustrine basin. During deposition of the high-
frequency sequence SS2 (Figure 10a and 10b), the lake
was at its maximum depth and extent and the study
area was a delta front. Distributary channels extended
far into the basin and were rarely exposed before burial.
A fringing sandy delta front was lacking. Later, during
deposition of the high-frequency sequences G41
(Figure 10c and 10d) and G31 (Figure 10e and 10f),
the lake diminished in area after repeated deltaic-
deposition episodes. The study area is located in the
shoreline area, which has a narrower delta-front zone.
The deltaic system prograded on a smaller scale, with
deltaic lobes forming one in front of another, attached
to shorter distributary channels, which terminated at
the shoreline at the time of deposition. Multiple shore-
line positions can be determined on the basis of channel
terminations (Figure 10c and 10d) or amplitude zoning
(Figure 10e and 10f), showing a general direction of
deltaic progradation.
Miocene deltas at the Gulf of Mexico,
Louisiana, United States
Starfak and Tiger Shoal fields of offshore Louisiana,
United States (Figure 11), lie along the western periph-
ery of the ancestral Mississippi River area. Located in
the Oligocene-Miocene Detachment Province of the
north Gulf Coast continental margin (Diegel et al.,
1995), Miocene deposits are largely controlled by
down-to-the-basin, listric growth faults that sole on a
regional detachment zone above the Oligocene section.
Salt tectonics and growth faulting resulted in a great
thickness of deltaic and other on-shelf sediments during
a period of high sedimentation rates. Interpreted depo-
sitional environments include lowstand prograding
wedge, slope fan, and basin-floor fan beyond the shelf
edge; incised valley, highstand delta, and transgressive
facies; and coastal plain, coastal delta, and inner-shelf
marine deposits in the coastal area (Hentz and Zeng,
2003).
All these Miocene depositional systems are com-
posed of interbedded sandstone and shale units, with
sandstones varying widely in thickness and ranging
from 1 to 40 m. Although the study area is situated
in a passive continental margin, a representative dip
seismic section across the area (Figure 12) demon-
strates mostly parallel to divergent seismic facies,
TEXAS
LOUISIANA
MISSISSIPPI
3D surveys
Field
N
VERMILION
AREA
SOUTH MARSH
ISLAND AREA
North Light
House Point
Tiger
Shoal
Starfak
C
LOUISIANA
MARSH ISLAND
C'
A
A'
0
0
5 mi
8 km
B
B'
Light
House
Point
Trinity Shoal
Amber Complex
Mound Point
Fig. 13
QAe1686
Figure 11. Location of Starfak and Tiger Shoal fields, 3D
seismic surveys, and wells in the Louisiana Gulf Coast.
SA42 Interpretation / August 2013
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lacking large-scale clinoform configurations. Most
of the study interval was deposited on the on-shelf
area. In particular, most of the thin, on-shelf deltaic
sediments are interbedded with incised valley fills
(IVFs), without displaying shingled clinoforms that
are representative of shallow-water deltas (Figure 4d).
With a predominant frequency of around 35 Hz, it is
understandable that the seismic data are not able to
image clinoform complexes from deltas thinner than
a calculated H
min
of 43 m (with 3000 ms velocity).
A strike seismic profile (Figure 12b) demonstrates
similar parallel to subparallel reflection events with
variable amplitude and continuity, without any indica-
tion of mounded facies (Figure 3b).
An amplitude stratal slice (Figure 13a) that sam-
ples one of the parallel and variable amplitude events
(Figure 12) reveals multiple channel forms and asso-
ciated amplitude anomalies of varying shapes, which
can be referred to as distributary channels and delta
lobes. Upward-coarsening wireline-log patterns in one
of the lobes indicate the sandy and prograding
character of the 30- to 35-m-thick delta system
(Figure 13b). Because of the digitate shape of the an-
cient landform, it is interpreted as a fluvial-dominated
delta having limited wave modification. This delta sys-
tem is so big that it obviously exceeds the 350-mi
2
study area.
Miocene Oakville deltas at the Gulf of Mexico,
Texas, United States
In a 3D seismic survey in the Corpus Christi Bay area
of south Texas (Figure 14), the Miocene Oakville For-
mation is bounded below by the upper Oligocene
Anahuac Formation. Sediments of the Oakville interval
form one of many thick offlapping wedges of terrig-
enous sediment that were deposited in the deep Gulf
of Mexico Basin during the late Tertiary (Brown
and Loucks, 2009). Oakville strata make up part of a
second-order regressive sequence of interbedded sand-
stones and shales that followed a basinwide second-
order transgression represented by the Oligocene
Anahuac Formation (Brown and Loucks, 2009).
Dip (Figure 15a) and strike (Figure 15b) seismic sec-
tions across the study area demonstrate a mostly
parallel seismic configuration in the Oakville interval,
which is the on-shelf portion of the thick Oakville off-
1600
1800
2000
2200
2400
2600
2800
Basinward
a)
b)
2000
2200
2400
2600
T
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a
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m
e

(
m
s
)
B B'

Amplitude
+
2 km 0
0 2 mi
14
Fault IVF at high-
freq sequence
A A'
T
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a
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l
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m
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(
m
s
)
QAe1695
Figure 12. Seismic sections in Starfak and
Tiger Shoal area showing the lack of clino-
forms in Miocene on-shelf deltaic sediments.
Dashed lines refer to position of the stratal
slice in Figure 13. (a) Northsouth dip section
A-A (modified from Zeng and Hentz, 2004).
(b) Westeast strike section B-B. See
Figure 11 for position.
Interpretation / August 2013 SA43
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lapping wedge. The dominantly deltaic and shore-zone
sediments exhibit a different depositional style from
that in the offshore Louisiana study area (Figure 11),
where a primary deltaic depocenter existed during the
Miocene. Instead, multiple small streams transported
enormous volumes of locally derived sediments across
the coastal plain of Texas (Galloway, 1986; Galloway
et al., 2000). Galloway et al. (2000) and Loucks et al.
(2011) find the older Oligocene shelf edge to be 20 to
25 mi seaward (downdip) of the study area.
An amplitude stratal slice made inside the Oakville
Formation (Figure 16) illustrates a unique channel-lobe
system that resembles some elongate branches of the
modern Mississippi delta (e.g., Figure 2) in geometry
and in size, except for its inner-shelf location. At least
eight mouth-bar lobes are seen attached to a sinuous
distributary-channel system. Wireline log patterns in
wells show that channel-filled sandstones do not ex-
ceed 10 m at this interval, falling below seismic resolu-
tion. Outside the channels and in between delta lobes,
shaly sediments dominate. No seismic clinoforms are
observed along the depositional surface represented
by the stratal slice (Figure 16), an indication of a
shallow-water origin of the deltaic system. The thick-
ness of the delta complex should not exceed the calcu-
lated H
min
, or 33 m, based on a predominant frequency
of the seismic data of 35 Hz and a formation velocity
of 2300 ms.
Frequency control on clinoform seismic
stratigraphy
A detailed outcrop-based acoustic impedance (AI)
model (Figure 17a) of the Abo carbonate sequence
at Apache Canyon, Sierra Diablo, west Texas
(Courme, 1999) provides a realistic stratigraphic and
facies reference to study factors that control the
transition between seismic clinoforms and non-
clinoforms of a prograding carbonate depositional
system. The modeled high-frequency sequence is com-
posed of multiple interbedded, high-AI mudstone/
packstone and low-AI grainstone clinoforms, dipping
at 1020 (average 15). Measured beds or bed sets
range in thickness from 3 to 10 m (landward) to 20
to 60 m (basinward). The clinoforms can be character-
ized as oblique (Figure 4b) because of the gradually re-
duced slope downdip and a bypassed or slightly eroded
toplap surface beneath a thin, irregular paleokarst sys-
tem. The whole Abo clinoform complex is encased in
flat-lying host carbonate units (Wolfcamp and Clear
Fork). Judging from the geometry of component beds
SB 4
Third-
order
Fourth-
order
Fourth-
order
SYSTEMS TRACT
U
p
p
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M
i
o
c
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n
e
SB 3
W2
North
C C
South
W17 W9 W14 W8 W4
GR SP ILD GR SP SP ILD GR ILD ILD
MFS 4
SP GR ILD SP GR ILD SP GR
200
0 0
60
ft m
DATUM
Highland (HST)
Lowstand (incised valley) (LST)
Transgressive (TST)
Maximum flooding surface
Sequence boundary
Maximum flooding surface
Transgressive surface
Sequence boundary
MFS 4
SB 4
QAe1701
a)
b)
2 km
Direction of
progradation
SB 4
Third-
order
Fourth-
order
Fourth-
order
SYSTEMS TRACT
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M
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SB 3
W2
North
C C
South
W17 W9 W14 W8 W4
GR SP ILD GR SP SP ILD GR ILD ILD
MFS 4
SP GR ILD SP GR ILD SP GR
200 2
0 0
60
ft m
DDAATUM TUM AAA
Highland (HST)
Lowstand (incised valley) (LST)
Transgressive (TST)
Maximum flooding surface
Sequence boundary
Maximum flooding surface
Transgressive surface
Sequence boundary
g
MFS 4
SB 4
QAe1701
a)
b)
2 km
Direction of
progradation
Channel/
lobe
- +
Amplitude
Fault
Figure 13. A nonclinoform, highstand on-
shelf delta in a high-frequency sequence in
Starfak and Tiger Shoal seismic surveys
(modified from Hentz and Zeng, 2003). (a) A
representative amplitude stratal slice illustrat-
ing multiple channel forms and associated
amplitude anomalies of varying shapes in an
on-shelf shallow-water delta. (b) Well section
C-C showing high-frequency sequence corre-
lation and stratal position of the stratal slice
(modified from Hentz and Zeng, 2003). Refer
to Figure 11 for the positions of the stratal
slice and the well section.
SA44 Interpretation / August 2013
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and the stacking pattern of the clinoforms, the imped-
ance layering of this system is comparable to that of a
deltaic system at a similar scale.
A set of synthetic seismic models (Figure 17b17f)
constructed from the AI model (Figure 17a) illustrate
how this clinoform complex responds to Ricker wave-
lets of different predominant frequencies. The 300-Hz
model (Figure 17b) has more than enough resolution
to resolve all modeled clinoform beds or bed sets. As
a result, the seismic clinoform configuration is an accu-
rate duplication of a geologic clinoform complex. In the
200-Hz model (Figure 17c), resolution is still good
enough to resolve most of the clinoforms, but clinoform
images start to blur in the thinnest beds and the thinnest
parts of the clinoformcomplex (e.g., box a in Figure 17c).
A further reduction of the predominant frequency to
100 Hz (Figure 17d) results in the disappearance of seis-
mic clinoforms in some segments of the complex (e.g.,
box a, part of box b). In the 75-Hz model (Figure 17e),
the seismic clinoforms are gone except in the thickest
part of the clinoform complex (box c). Finally, seismic
clinoforms disappear altogether in the 50-Hz model
(Figure 17f); instead, we see a mostly flat event having
variable amplitude and continuity.
A more quantitative analysis suggests that the first
occurrence of seismic clinoforms in this set of seismic
models is closely related to H
min
(equations 1 and 2). A
thinner clinoform complex needs data of higher
predominant frequency to image. The clinoform com-
plex shown in box a (Figure 17a) is about 1520 m
(57 ms) thick, which requires seismic data of 150
200 Hz to image (box a in Figure 17c). For a clinoform
complex of 30 m (10 ms), 100-Hz data are barely
adequate to show recognizable seismic clinoforms
(box b in Figure 17d). If a clinoform complex is 45 m
(15 ms) thick, it will show up in a 75-Hz section (box c
in Figure 17e).
It seems that the type of seismic clinoform configu-
ration may also be related to data frequency. An oblique
clinoform seismic configuration in higher frequency
data (e.g., 300-Hz section, Figure 17b) tends to become
a shingled configuration in the lower frequency data
(e.g., box b in Figure 17d, box c in Figure 17e). As a
result, shingled facies observed in seismic data are
not necessarily truly representative of geologic clino-
form architecture. The merging of seismic responses
of the thinner, low-angle downdip portion of clinoforms
with that from underlying flat host rocks in low-
frequency data appears to distort the seismic facies.
Biddle et al. (1992) document in their outcrop modeling
study that the seismic downlap surfaces do not corre-
spond to discrete stratal surfaces but to the toe-of-slope
position where major bedding units thin below seismic
resolution. Likewise, seismic sigmoidal clinoforms may
be distorted by seismic toplaps corresponding to lithof-
acies changes in sigmoidal geologic units. Readers are
referred to Zeng and Kerans (2003, Figure 1) for a field-
data example.
Reducing ambiguity of seismic interpretation
Seismic nonclinoforms of prograding depositional
systems pose a challenge to exploration and produc-
tion geologists using seismic data. The lack of a
recognizable clinoform configuration may lead to
misinterpretation of a prograding system as a different
facies. For example, without well data and stratal slice
mapping, the subparallel, variable-amplitude reflections
that correlated with shallow-water deltas in Figures 7,
12, and 15 could easily be misinterpreted as flood-
plain, shore-zone, or shallow-water lake/shallow-water
marine facies; the nonclinoform reflection in low-
frequency seismic models of a shelf-edge carbonate
clinoform complex (e.g., Figure 17f) could mistakenly
be interpreted as flat inner-shelf mudstones. This ambi-
guity in seismic interpretation may have significant con-
sequences. the most serious misinterpretation would be
to drill a shallow-water delta play on the basis of a false
impression about the continuity of shingled reservoirs
that actually pinch out at multiple toplap points. A sim-
ulation model based on flat and continuous reservoir
bedding instead of clinoforms would further hinder
development of remaining hydrocarbons in hetero-
geneous reservoirs.
B
B'
A
A'
Laguna Madre
Padre Island
Mustang
Island
Portland
Corpus Christi
Nueces
Bay
N
TEXAS
Port Aransas
G u l f o f M e x i c o
C
o
r p
u
s

C
h
r i s
t i B
a
y
Redfish Bay
Aransas
Pass
10 km 0
QAe1700
Figure 14. Corpus Christi Bay area in south Texas and loca-
tion of 3D seismic survey used in the study.
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The ultimate solution to these problems is to pro-
mote acquisition of high-resolution seismic data. Based
on equation 2 and Table 1, in a data set of 200-Hz
predominant frequency H
min
will reduce to 5 m (for
2000 m/s clastic rocks) to 15 m (for 6000 m/s carbonate
rocks), which would greatly enhance our ability to
visually interpret thin-bedded seismic clinoforms.
Some new technologies in high-resolution acquisition
have been developed in recent years. Among them, Q
technology (Goto et al., 2004) and high-density 3D
technology (Ramsden et al., 2005) have probably met
with the most success.
Where the current high cost of acquisition of high-
resolution seismic data may not be suitable, a high-
frequency enhancement processing of available seismic
data would help. Spectral balancing (Tufekcic et al.,
1981), spectral decomposition (Partyka et al., 1999),
inverse spectral decomposition (Portniaguine and
Castagna, 2004), and wavelet transform (e.g., Smith
et al., 2008; Devi and Schwab, 2009) are some of the
most useful methods. Figure 18 shows an example in
the Abo Kingdomcarbonate field of west Texas of using
the spectral balancing method to increase the pre-
dominant frequency of data for better clinoform imag-
ing. The original stacked and migrated seismic data
(Figure 18a) are characterized by a frequency range
of 10 to 70 Hz and a predominant frequency of
30 Hz. Some toplaps are seen terminated against a non-
clinoform, flat reflection of strong amplitude. Following
a spectral balancing process (Figure 18b), the predomi-
nant frequency of the data increases to 45 Hz, resulting
in a breakup of the flat event in the original data (Fig-
ure 18a) into several clinoforms. It appears that these
newly imaged clinoforms are part of a large sigmoidal
clinoform complex that lacks an inside toplap surface.
However, the process of high-frequency enhance-
ment inevitably lowers the signal-to-noise ratio of the
data and therefore has its limit. Caution should be
taken not to artificially push the predominant fre-
quency beyond the bandwidth of the data. For many
- +
Amplitude
a)
b)
Basinward
1 km
Fault
Anahuac
Frio
Oakville
A
B B'
B'
QAe1696
Anahuac
Frio
Oakville
T
r
a
v
e
l
t
i
m
e

(
m
s
)
T
r
a
v
e
l
t
i
m
e

(
m
s
)
1000
1500
2000
1000
Figure 15. Seismic sections in the Corpus
Christi area showing the lack of clinoforms
in Miocene Oakville on-shelf deltaic sedi-
ments. Dashed lines refer to position of the
stratal slice in Figure 16. (a) Dip section
A-A. (b) Strike section B-B. Refer to Figure 14
for position.
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areas where only low-frequency data are available or
the clinoform complexes are too thin (e.g., the
shallow-water deltas investigated in this paper),
an integrated approach that combines the use of
core, wireline logs, production data, and seismic
geomorphology should be adapted. Unique landforms
on seismic stratal slices that are representative of vari-
ous deltaic systems can alert interpreters to the pos-
sible existence of shingled reservoir architecture in
the form of nonclinoform reflections. Multiple long
terminal distributary-channel forms (Figure 10a),
stepwise termination of distributary-channel forms
(Figure 10b), amplitude zoning (Figure 10c), and dig-
itate (Figure 13a) and elongate (Figure 16) areal geom-
etries are good examples of indicators of the presence
of thin, below-seismic-resolution deltas. For detailed
reservoir prediction and characterization, seismic lith-
ology should also be investigated so that a 3D seismic
volume can first be converted into a log lithology vol-
ume. In a lithology volume, lithology logs (e.g., gamma-
ray and spontaneous potential) at well locations are
tied to nearby seismic traces within a small tolerance,
ensuring the best possible well integration with seis-
mic data at the reservoir level. Using seismic geomor-
phology, researchers can convert seismic data further
into depositional facies images with lithologic identifi-
cation. Such an approach is called seismic sedimentol-
ogy (Zeng and Hentz, 2004).
QAe1697
SP/Res
logs
Channel/
lobe
Direction of
progradation
Well Fault
N
Amplitude 500 m
- +
Figure 16. A representative amplitude stratal slice revealing
a nonclinoform, on-shelf delta in the Miocene Oakville Forma-
tion in the Corpus Christi seismic survey.
QAe1698
b
a
c
Abo
Wolfcamp
Clear Fork
a)
AI
b)
300 Hz
f ) 50 Hz
e)
75 Hz
d)
100 Hz
c)
200 Hz
Hmin
Hmin Hmin
Hmin Hmin
b
a
c
Abo
Wolfcamp
Clear Fork
b
a
c b
a
c b
a
c
b
a
c b
a
c b
a
c b
a
c b
a
c b
a
c
Figure 17. An AI model of the Abo carbonate
clinoform complex at Apache Canyon, Sierra
Diablo, west Texas (Courme, 1999), and its
synthetic seismic responses with Ricker wave-
lets of various frequencies. For better com-
parison with field data, the predominant
frequency is used in modeling, which is equal
to 1.3 times the peak frequency for Ricker
wavelet. Clinoform detection limits are calcu-
lated fromequation 1. Boxes a, b, and c denote
relatively thin, moderate, and thick clinoform
complexes in the model, respectively.
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Conclusions
The seismic configuration of a prograding depositio-
nal sequence is related to the water depth of the receiv-
ing basin. Although deep-water (shelf-edge) deltas that
were deposited in water depths of high tens to hundreds
of meters can easily be resolved by seismic data as seis-
mic clinoforms, the clinoforms in shallow-water deltas
developed in water depths of meters to low tens of me-
ters tend to be unrecognized by their seismic responses
in the form of seismic nonclinoforms. The clinoform
detection limit (H
min
) can be defined as one wavelength
(width of two seismic events) and is related to the pre-
dominant frequency of the seismic data and the velocity
of the prograding sediments.
Ancient nonclinoform shallow-water deltas devel-
oped in lacustrine and marine environments have been
interpreted from low-frequency stacked and migrated
seismic data by integrated use of core, wireline logs,
and amplitude stratal slices. The diagnostic seismic
geomorphologic patterns include, but are not limited
to, multiple long terminal distributary-channel forms,
stepwise termination of distributary-channel forms, am-
plitude zoning, and digitate and elongate areal landform
geometries.
Our outcrop seismic modeling shows the seismic
frequency control on clinoform seismic stratigraphy.
When the predominant frequency of a seismic wavelet
decreases, an oblique clinoform pattern tends to be-
come a shingled clinoform configuration, and when the
thickness of a clinoform complex reaches H
min
, a tran-
sition from seismic clinoforms to seismic nonclino-
forms occurs.
The interpretation of progradational depositional se-
quences needs to go beyond the recognition of seismic
clinoforms using traditional seismic facies analysis of
low-frequency seismic data. Ambiguity in interpreting
nonclinoform seismic facies can be effectively reduced
by high-resolution acquisition, high-frequency enhance-
ment processing, and seismic sedimentology.
Acknowledgments
We thank Q. Zhang, Y. Sun, R. Wang, C. Zhou, and B.
Bai for their contribution to the study. The authors also
extend gratitude to PetroChina and Chevron for provid-
ing well and seismic data. Landmark Graphics Corpora-
tion provided software via the Landmark University
Grant Programfor the interpretation and display of seis-
mic data. The authors thank INTERPRETATION reviewers C.
Olariu and R. Loucks for their constructive comments
and suggestions. Figures were prepared by C. Brown
and J. Lardon. S. Doenges edited the text. Publication
was authorized by the director, Bureau of Economic
Geology, Jackson School of Geosciences, The Univer-
sity of Texas at Austin.
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ment, 39, 275284, doi: 10.1016/S1876-3804(12)60045-7.
Zou, C. N., W. Z. Zhao, X. Y. Zhang, P. Luo, L. Wang, L. H.
Liu, S. H. Xue, X. J. Yuan, R. K. Zhu, and S. H. Tao, 2008,
Formation and distribution of shallow-water deltas and
central-basin sandbodies in large open depression lake
basins: (in Chinese) Acta Geologica Sinica, 82, 813825.
Hongliu Zeng received a B.S. (1982)
and an M.S. (1985) in geology from
the Petroleum University of China and
a Ph.D. (1994) in geophysics from the
University of Texas at Austin. He is a
senior research scientist for the Bureau
of Economic Geology, Jackson School
of Geosciences, The University of Texas
at Austin. His research interests include seismic sedimentol-
ogy, seismic interpretation, and attribute analysis. He won the
Pratt Memorial Award from AAPG in 2005.
Xiaomin Zhu received B.S. (1982), M.S.
(1985), and Ph.D. (1990) degrees in
petroleum geology from the Petroleum
University of China. He is a professor
in the College of Geosciences, China
University of Petroleum at Beijing,
China. His research interests include
lacustrine sedimentology, sequence
stratigraphy, and seismic sedimentology. He won the Li
Siguang Award from the foundation of Li Siguang geological
scientific award in 2009.
SA50 Interpretation / August 2013
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Rukai Zhu received a B.S. (1988) in
geology from Hunan University of Sci-
ence and Technology, an M.S. (1991) in
geology from China University of Geo-
sciences, and a Ph.D. (1994) in geology
from Peking University. He is a senior
geologist for the Research Institute of
Petroleum Exploration & Development
PetroChina. His research interests include sedimentology,
reservoir characterization, and unconventional petroleum
geology.
Interpretation / August 2013 SA51
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