Visualization in Surfer Tells Compelling Geologic Stories

 For Donald Staples, visualization is everything. He is the CEO of Grandview Energy, an oil and gas exploration firm in Calgary, Alberta. Staples spends a lot of time interpreting complex subsurface geology and then uses Surfer to visualize his findings in compelling ways. His objective is to create maps that reassure clients and partners that he has selected the ideal spot to drill for petroleum or natural gas.


“I have to construct a narrative that appeals to people…so they can identify and visualize in their own minds-eye my interpretation of the geology,” said Staples. “Surfer is by far the best platform for creating visually compelling subsurface maps.”


Staples says his narratives have to be understandable by everyone, not just fellow geologists. Often, he presents his project work to clients inside the large energy companies that hire his firm to pinpoint reservoirs and choose well sites. But other times, he relies on the maps to help explain and visually describe his ideas to non-technical individuals.


For either audience, Staples takes geologic and geophysical data, especially 2D/3D seismic surveys, along with pre-existing historical well locations, to generate colorful 3D maps in Surfer. He often starts processing data sets for his subsurface interpretations in other popular industry standard data mapping software platforms but invariably loads the results into Surfer for map creation.



Subsurface contour map illustrating a carbonate platform that reefs grow upward from.


“Surfer lets me go inside and make detailed alterations and refinements to the colors and contour lines…to adjust the presentation and make it perfect,” he explained. “You can’t do that as easily or comprehensively with the other software packages.”


One of his favorite narratives is comparing an ancient geologic structure with a more modern one to give his audiences a perspective they can relate to more easily. A common example is a 300-milion-year-old reef buried far below the surface, which he brings to life in 3D with Surfer. Then Staples creates another layer comprised of an air photo showing a similar modern-day reef build-up which creates a directly analogous comparison between the ancient and modern.


Irregularly contoured surface highlighting pinnacle reefs. The reefs are represented by the cone shaped tower features.


“With 3D seismic, a pinnacle reef can show up and be imaged quite obviously. It can stand up like an office tower on our interpretations and can be quite stunning…we show them what a modern reef looks like now, and then what it looked like millions of years ago,” he said. “When you can connect the distant past with an opportunity today and can show them how things work the same way now as it did millions of years ago, people get excited.”


Pinnacle reef contours above overlaid with an upper surface rock layer. The dimples represent the affect of the reef towers as they poke through the surface layer.


Aside from the visual aspects of Surfer mapping, Staples points to other favorite functions in the software. The computational capabilities are very strong, he says, which come into play when he calculates area and volumes of potential hydrocarbon reservoirs. He often uses the Residuals gridding tool for planar map surfaces. This function allows him to adjust for complexities relating to present day regionally tilted surfaces with an improved determination of how those irregular surfaces likely were formed over geological time.  


Staples also marvels at how easily Surfer ingests enormous data files with any type of location coordinates. In a few instances, he has loaded Excel files containing hundreds of thousands of well location data points and other spatial attributes into Surfer to create statewide geologic maps. The data loads quickly and displays accurately on the map.


Finally, Staples has already caught wind of a new feature coming soon in Surfer – 3D Drill Holes. Since most oil and gas wells are now drilled horizontally, he believes this will be an incredibly powerful tool to precisely visualize where the wells are located spatially in in any modeled rock volume.


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