Peter Vail

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Peter Vail
Peter Vail headshot.png
Membership Honorary Member

Peter Vail is a geologist/geophysicist who made great advances in the discipline of seismic stratigraphy.


Biography Citation for SEG Honorary Membership

Contributed by R. M. Mitchum, Jr.

Peter R. Vail is being honored by the SEG in recognition of his "pioneering work in seismic stratigraphy and continuing work in unifying geophysical and geological concepts in interpretation." All who know Pete will agree wholeheartedly that this citation is richly deserved. More than any other person, Pete Vail has put geology into seismic interpretation. His creative ideas concerning sequence stratigraphy and the unifying concept of eustatic sea-level cycles, although still hotly debated in some circles, are probably as close to an original concept as most of us are privileged to see in one lifetime. Pete's worldwide experience with Exxon's exploration groups has honed the concept into an immensely practical tool in hydrocarbon exploration.

His lectures, publications, and untiring teaching efforts have made his methods available to any interpreter or geologist willing to try them.

Pete Vail graduated from Dartmouth College in 1952 with an A.B. degree. He attended Northwestern University from 1952 to 1956 where he received his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees. At Northwestern he was influenced greatly by professors Bill Krumbein and Larry Sloss, who were at the height of their work on quantified facies mapping and North American unconformity-bounded sequences. He began his career Oil Company, an Exxon affiliate in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He and his lovely wife Carolyn reared a family of three children, who at first grew faster than his geological reputation. He relocated to Houston in 1965, after exploration and production research activities were consolidated in Esso Production Research Company, now Exxon Production Research Company. Since then, he has advanced through a series of supervisory and technical positions to the highest technical level in his company, a senior research scientist. Pete always worked within a framework of one or more "driving concepts," into which he can fit geologic facts or occurrences. He is a good listener, and avidly learns from others, especially from other disciplines. He has never been so much in love with a concept that he could not modify or drop it in the face of good evidence. His patience, thoughtfulness, and steady Pete's ideas evolved naturally from his first pioneering work recognizing the importance of stratal surfaces in rocks as geologic time-lines. Although his early work was with well-log pattern correlation, he soon recognized the potential of seismic data to provide the continuity and reflection patterns essential to defining stratigraphic sequences.

With a wisdom greater than the advice of some of his supervisors, Pete switched to geophysics and, in that fertile environment, began his work on seismic stratigraphy. In rapid order, he recognized that:


Because seismic reflections are generated by physical bedding surfaces, they parallel these surfaces rather than time-transgressive facies boundaries.
Seismic reflections fall naturally into seismic sequences, with characteristic seismic facies patterns that can be used to interpret depositional environment and lithology.
The unconformities that form sequence boundaries have the same ages when recognized in several basins worldwide.


This synchroneity led Pete to postulate global sea-level change as a major control on the stratigraphic record, along with the local controls of subsidence and sediment supply. In 1977, Pete and his Exxon colleagues published their stratigraphic sequence concepts and sea-level curves in AAPG Memoir 26. Lately, Pete has been looking at wells, outcrops and seismic sections to study the types of stratigraphic units produced within a sequence at different positions in a given cycle of sea-level change. He also is refining the ages of sequence boundaries by dating them in European-type localities. In all his work he remains quietly confident that sequence stratigraphy has the break- through potential that plate tectonics had in structural geology.

In the natural course of his work, Pete has received a great many honors from societies around the world. In 1976 the SEG awarded him the Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal for advancement of the science of geophysical exploration. He was an AAPG Distinguished Lecturer in 1975 and 1976. In 1978 he was the William Smith Lecturer for the Geological Society of London. In 1979 he was the corecipient of the AAPG President?s Award for the best published paper, and in 1981 he was corecipient of the AAPG Matson Award for the best papers delivered at the 1980 Annual Convention. In 1983 he received the Individual Achievement Award from the Offshore Technology Conference. Pete has received other honors and served on many professional committees with distinction.

As a close personal friend, consider it a great honor to have been asked to write this citation for Peter R. Vail. Even beyond his great technical contributions, Pete is characterized by his integrity, his dedication to his family, and faithfulness to his friends and colleagues.

Biography Citation for the Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal

Contributed by T. Norman Crook

I consider it a great privelege to act on behalf of SEG to present the Virgil Kauffman Gold Medal for 1976 to Peter Vail for is pioneering work in seismic stratigraphy. The award was established by Virgil Kauffman to encourage improvement in the science of geophysical exploration. Each year it is awarded to a peson who has made a significan contribution to the most outstanding advancement in the science of geophysical exploration during the preceeding year, or recognized as such during the previous year.

Like most other recipients of this medal, Peter Vail's contributions didn't occur in just one year. Indeed, improving the science of interpreeting stratigraphy from seismic data has been the goal of his entire career. Those who have heard his lectures in the last year, those who have participated in seminars with him, and those of us who have been his colleagues for many years will agree that he has significantly advanced the state of the art.

Pet received a Ph.D. degree in geology from Northwestern University in 1959. Early in his career he recognized that the most useful exploration data, and many times the only data, in frontier areas where those provided by geophysicists. He became a geophysicist in his own right, and has effected a happy marriage of geology and geophysics in developing methods for predicting rock type, depositional environment, and even geologic age from seismic data.

Pete is one of the most creative people in has been my privilege to know. I suppose that everyone who has interpreted seismic dat ahas felt that he was only scratching the surface of the information that potentially could be derived. Pete felt that way, too, and has invented several ways to scratch a little deeper. Perhaps his method for determining geologic age is his most creative accomplishment.

In the early 1960s, he conceived the idea that, if fluctuations in sea level had occurred throughout geologic time, distinctive patterns would be created where coastal sedimentation onlaps the continents. The patterns, and hence the age, could be determined with the seismograph. For over ten years he worked on this idea, and he has proved that, indeed, major changes in sea level have taken place many times in geologic history. He and his colleagues have worked out the pattern of these variations, and the method has been used successfully many times to predict geologic age ahead of the drill.

Pete has mad and helped make other improvements equally valuable. He recognized that major sea-level changes create boundaries which can be used to divide seismic sections into natural units. The use of these natural units, called "seismic sequences" by Pete, within which reflection patterns can be used to predict depositional patterns, geologic setting, and rock type, has been particularly successful in making the seismograph a better exploration tool.

This citation would not be complete without mentioning Pete's abilities as a teacher and inspiring co-worker. He has developed a technique of having workshops to solve difficult interpretation problems and introduce new technology in Exxon. He is not only a creative scientist himself, but he inspires creativity in others. Through lectures and seminars sponsored by our society and our companion society AAPG, he has performed a great service to our profession.

I therefore consider it a personal honor and great pleaseure to present the 1976 Kauffman Gold Medal Award to Peter Vail for his outstanding contributions to the geophysical profession through improvements in seismic stratigraphy.