Outcrops tell the tale of conjugate margins

Researchers Retrace Giant’s ‘Stepping Stones’

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

According to Celtic mythology, third century Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill – intent upon defeating Benandonner, his Scottish nemesis – built a causeway of 40,000 interlocking, hexagonal-shaped stepping stones from Ireland to Scotland. Battle was averted when mac Cumhaill tricked Benandonner into believing that he was a giant amongst men, and the Scot beat a hasty retreat across the causeway.

Today, these hexagonal-shaped stepping stones of the Giant’s Causeway – in reality, Tertiary age basaltic columnar lava flows – are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Equally legendary to geologists, these basaltic lava flows tell the story of the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean, some 55 million years ago.

Next August, attendees of the Third Central and North Conjugate Margins Conference at Trinity College, Dublin, will have the opportunity to travel to the land of giants – County Antrim, Northern Ireland – to study these classical textbook columns, the tallest of which measure almost 40 feet.

“Not many people get the chance to see such amazing geology, and, at the same time, to experience such a unique place,” said Alastair Ruffell, geologist, geophysicist and leader of the pre-conference field trip to the Giant’s Causeway.

“Within a half an hour we’ll travel from 55-million-year-old igneous rocks to 600-million-year-old metamorphic rocks, with almost every Phanerozoic episode of the Earth in between,” said Ruffell, director of education at Queen’s University’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology in Belfast.

“It doesn’t get much more diverse than this!”

Continuing the Story

Following on the heels of two successful conjugate margins conferences – Halifax 2008 and Lisbon 2010 – Dublin’s Trinity College will host the third in a series of conferences to focus on the evolution of the north and central Atlantic’s conjugate margins and the exploration potential of their petroleum systems.

Conference keynote speakers will discuss their latest research in a range of disciplines, including plate reconstruction, state-of-the-art assessments of petroleum systems and recent exploration and production initiatives.

Titled “Conjugate Margins – Combining the Knowledge,” the conference will feature pre- and post-conference geology field trips, core workshops, technical courses and oral and poster presentations spanning three days (Aug. 22-24) and grouped into four thematic sessions:

  • Atlantic Margin Evolution and Development.
  • Atlantic Ocean Plate Reconstruction .
  • Atlantic Basin Petroleum Systems.
  • Atlantic Margins Exploration and Production.

Martin Davies is a project coordinator with PIP-ISPG, thePetroleum Infrastructure Programme-Irish Shelf Petroleum Studies Group. Davies, a petroleum geologist, is coordinating the conference planning on behalf of its joint hosts, PIP-ISPG and the Irish Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources –Petroleum Affairs Division).

To date, other committed sponsors include AAPG, ExxonMobil, Statoil, TGS-NOPEC, the Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain, the Petroleum Group of the Geological Society of London, the European Federation of Geologists, Trinity College, Dublin and Fáilte Ireland, the country’s tourist board.

Davies is capitalizing on the momentum – and excitement – generated by the predecessor conjugate margin conferences.

“We’re building on what’s gone before,” Davies said. “It’s clear from Halifax and Lisbon that there’s a great deal of interest. The conference provides a great opportunity to listen to a wide range of ideas and themes.”

The organizing committee includes AAPG members David Brown, co-chair of Halifax 2008, and Nuno Pimentel, co-chair of Lisbon 2010.

“We created a recipe book,” said Brown, a senior geologist with the Canada-Nova Scotia Offshore Petroleum Board (CNSOPB). “Nuno expanded it with knowledge from Lisbon 2010, and we’ve provided everything to our Irish friends.”

“Halifax 2008 was the kick-off of an idea,” said Pimentel, professor of geology at Lisbon University. “Lisbon 2010 was the continuation – it was truly a conjugate margins event because it brought people together from both sides of the Atlantic.”

Making an Impact

A cross-pollination of ideas emerged at the first two conjugate margins conferences, according to Pimentel, expanding the E&P industry’s knowledge – and opportunities – in these passive margin basins.

“The conjugate margins series has its own momentum now,” Brown added. “There’s a nexus of people coming together, a cadre of researchers and scientists – it’s becoming a family and everyone is welcome, especially students.”

Brown’s thoughts on building a global community of conjugate margins experts, in turn, are echoed by Pimentel.

“We’re not just passing the ball – we’re building up a core committee with experience,” Pimentel said. “And I think that it’s important for our sponsors to see continuity.”

Each of the last two conjugate conferences have attracted around 225 participants from 18 countries, distributed evenly between academia, industry (E&P and service sector companies) and governmental organizations.

Halifax 2008, “Sharing Ideas and Embracing Opportunities,” was co-hosted by Dalhousie University, the CNSOPB, and the Nova Scotia Department of Energy. Lisbon 2010’s tag was “Rediscovering the Atlantic: New Winds for an Old Sea,” and was hosted by Coimbra University and Lisbon University.

According to Brown and Pimentel, the university setting creates a collegial atmosphere for these gatherings of global experts. Concurrent presentations – everyone is together in the same room for three days – and the small group size facilitate spontaneous interactions and networking opportunities.

The two-year hiatus between conferences, they concurred, enables investigators to produce new bodies of work for presentation at the next conference.

Open to All

“Although the conference focuses on the conjugate margins of the North and Central Atlantic, we won’t be prescriptive about how far down the Atlantic we go,” Davies said. “We’d like to attract anyone working on conjugate margins, particularly those people working on plate reconstructions, comparative studies from one side to the other and petroleum systems.”

“One of Lisbon 2010’s objectives was to get more European participation,” Davies said. “We’re going to try to improve on that while continuing to attract North American and Latin American participants, including Brazilians.

“We’re very keen on attracting students from outside of Europe – from West Africa, North Africa, the Caribbean and South America,” he continued. “And we’d encourage companies not just to send their experts but to send their junior staff, as well as foreign nationals from the countries in which they operate.”

“To date, everyone has been awed by the research that the students are doing,” Brown said, citing opportunities for student funding and mentorship. “The attendance price for students is low, and they’re strongly encouraged to interact and meet industry members.”

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Conjugate Margins Conference at Classic Site


The third Central and North Conjugate Margins Conference venue, Trinity College, is a beautiful historic university located in the heart of Dublin – a city steeped in geological history and tradition.

Trinity College’s department of geology is one of the oldest in the world – its Chair of Geology and Mineralogy was established in 1843.

For conference goers and their companions alike, Dublin offers a wide range of attractions, including museums and art galleries; tours of Trinity College and Dublin Castle; and scenic tours of the region and the Boyne Valley (including Newgrange, one of Europe’s most famous archaeological sites). The River Boyne, en route from Dublin to the Giant’s Causeway, is famous for the victory of King William of Orange over King James of Scotland in 1690.

In addition to visiting the Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway Coast, Dublin 2012 offers a number of other equally exciting pre- and post-conference geology field trips, including the world-famous Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland, and the Jurassic coast cliff sections of Dorset and Devon, southern England.

During Lisbon 2010, the field trip to the northern and central part of the Lusitanian Basin was over-subscribed, leaving many disappointed geologists. For Dublin 2012, Pimentel and his Lisbon 2010 co-chair, AAPG member Rui Pena dos Reis, will offer a post-conference excursion that’s a continuation of the original field trip. This new trip will traverse three closely related basins in Southern Portugal: the Algarve and Alentejo basins, and the Lusitanian Basin in the Arrabida Alpine Chain. Participants will visit spectacular outcrops along beautiful beaches with nearby fishing villages and vineyards as a cultural backdrop.

Spouses are welcome to participate in the field trips.

“It’s wonderful for them (spouses) to have a greater appreciation of what we do,” Brown said, “and to experience the host country’s spectacular scenery and amazing hospitality.”

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