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African Geology meetings in London, Houston and Africa

by Colin Reeves on March 24, 2014 News&Views

Geophysicists in elephant country – a game drive during SAGA 2013.

Over the past twelve years, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain and the Houston Geological Society have jointly established the premier global meeting devoted to Africa’s petroleum geology. The meeting has alternated between London and Houston every September and in 2013 it was London’s turn. Having outgrown its earlier central venue in Westminster, the conference centre at the famous Wembley Stadium hosted the 12th event with about 500 delegates attending talks in a single-session format totaling 26 talks over two full days. There were posters, trade displays and refreshments between and after session hours. The theme this year was ‘Success in Rift, Sag and Passive Margin Settings’. The presentations included many up-to-date reports on findings and exploration strategies mostly on the west coast (Day 1) and the East African Rift and coastline (Day 2), indicating very active and evolving exploration portfolios in both regions that find little exposure in the scientific literature. For anyone with an interest in finding oil in Africa, the13th meeting, in Houston, September 2014, is a must.

Later in September your correspondent was in Houston for the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG) annual convention. With over 10,000 delegates, this is a large meeting by any yardstick, requiring the scale of the George R. Brown Convention Centre to accommodate it. It had been more than 30 years since I last attended the SEG and the shear immensity of it was almost intimidating. The hardware and software of seismic exploration and drilling demands a major industry to support it, of course, but look carefully and you can also find exponents of other geophysical methods to talk to. In comparison with the London meeting, this whole event was much more about ‘selling surveys’ than ‘finding oil’ and all the geological insight that goes with it. While more than half of the SEG membership is now based outside the US, an all-American spirit still predominates. And ‘spare no expense’ seems to be a louder message than anything to do with representing us as a professional group, conscious of our global environmental footprint, both in what we do day-to-day and the resources we find for the consumers of the world to turn into yet more CO2.

I was there primarily at the invitation of the Gravity and Magnetics Committee who had asked me to address their annual luncheon. My talk attempted, in a light-hearted way, to address the need for geological insight in potential field interpretation since potential fields are essentially non-unique, despite their immense value at the reconnaissance stage of geological mapping and exploration. The exploration highlight of the meeting for me was a workshop on ‘Exploration of Continental Rifts: from Regional to Prospect Level’, on an afternoon after the main sessions were over and the vast exhibition cleared away. A group of about 50 of us were treated to nine half-hour talks by speakers concerned mostly with petroleum exploration projects within rifts in Africa. This is certainly a hot topic where the scarcity of base-line geoscience information gathered over the past 50 years in Africa means a lot of surprises lie in store.

The last of this trilogy of African meetings took me to Africa itself where the South African Geophysical Association (SAGA) held its 13th Biennial Conference, followed immediately by AEM-2013 (The Sixth International Conference on Airborne EM -which I skipped), at the start of October. The venue was the new conference centre at the Skukuza Camp of the Kruger National Park. The ‘park’ itself, it should be mentioned, has the dimensions of many small countries of the world! In terms of sound organisation, attention to detail and a general feeling of everybody being very welcome – including for game drives and social events in the evenings – this was a delight for the 300-odd delegate who wisely made the effort to attend. The organizers had made a special effort – and solicited donations – to make it possible for delegates from other African countries to join in. While over 20 countries were represented in total, it was sad to see that the national geological surveys from African countries no more than a stone’s throw away in African terms were unrepresented. It was, of course, special for me to meet again with South African colleagues I had worked with 40 years ago during my professional time doing geophysical mapping in the Kalahari. Scientific curiosity in the hidden geology of Africa, kindled then, has accompanied me through a whole career and I continue to do my best to share the insights that still occur to me through talks at such meetings as these and through my website.

In an earlier piece for Earth Explorer I signaled the next meeting of the Geological Society of Africa to be in Brazil in September 2014. There has subsequently been a change of plan and the meeting will now, instead, be held in Tanzania in August at the 25th Colloquium of African Geology (CAG25). Another good diary entry for African geology in 2014 is the next ‘Gondwana’ meeting – number 15 in a four-yearly cycle – that will take place in Madrid in July. Efforts to update the popular (and long out-of-print) 1988 AAPG Geological Map of Gondwana and make its contents web-accessible have been formalized in Unesco-IGCP Project 628. The protagonists of this worthy project should certainly be in evidence in Madrid and looking for your input!