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Seismic Visualization & the Energy Transition

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

The past few weeks have been, to put it mildly, interesting. A few weeks ago, I was a pure technocrat, obsessed with my own work and scornful of the much-touted, falsely narrated, energy transition. Today, I am changed. Today, I am obsessed with the energy transition, at least as it pertains to oil, and I am aware of, and prepared to evangelize, the critically important role that both you and I must play in it.

In the past few weeks, the world has undergone decades of change and I, as an energy professional, have changed along with it. This is what I now believe:

  • Oil is not a luxury: it is a necessity of life. We cannot live without it.

  • It is so important to modern life that we must replace it as the primary fuel for transportation.

  • We must replace it with a new fuel source that all nations can produce for themselves.

  • The transition to this new, as of yet undiscovered, fuel source, will be harder and take longer than is currently accepted.

  • Explorationists like you and I are critically important components of the transition because it is our responsibility to keep economies and societies stable and functioning during it.

  • Seismic Visualization has a surprisingly important contribution to make.

This is the first of a series of articles that will explain the reasoning behind my change in focus and change in thinking. I will begin by explaining both who and what I am and what I do.


For the past 45 years, I have called myself a geophysicist and been proud of it. In reality, though, I am a technocrat who specializes in geophysics. I love nothing more than the hands-on work of developing my own technology and abhor politics, committees and meetings, avoiding them like a plague. On the rare occasions when I do join a committee, it is guaranteed not to end well. Always willing to succeed or fail based upon my own decisions, I have little, if any, interest in group compromise and would never serve as an evangelist for other people’s ideas.

If I were to summarize my personality and outlook on life, it would be in these two immortal lines from Kipling:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone.

When he wrote those lines, Kipling must have had people like me in mind. I work in silence, and I work alone. All the way back to primary school in the UK in the early 60’s, I have always worked in silence, and I have always worked alone.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to this mentality. On the one hand, it frees you to explore truly revolutionary concepts and to go, to use the expression, “where no one has gone before”. It is always hard to explain the insanity of true exploration to a rational mind. Better to simply go and see if you can get there and back in one piece.

On the other hand, however, traveling alone can take you so far from the mainstream that people lose sight of you entirely. When you make landfall again, there is no guarantee they will recognize you, or be interested in the stories of your travels. It is a balancing act.

There are many reasons why I have worked alone for most of my career. Some are personal and some are professional. Suffice to say that I don’t like to be slowed down and encumbered, and it just fits who I am. From the time I was a small boy, I have gone my own way and never looked behind to see if anyone was following me.

All this makes me ideally suited for my work at hand. I specialize in seismic visualization, researching and developing virtual and augmented reality display technology. It is important work and given how moribund seismic visualization has become, someone desperately needed to do it. But there is a problem with it; it is a field so far outside mainstream geophysics that it is hard to conceive of anyone even noticing it. It needed someone like me, someone who is more comfortable outside the mainstream than within, to find the meandering path and follow it regardless of where it went.

The work is important and long overdue because the visualization technologies we use today date to the 1960’s and 1970’s. Consequently, as my research has shown, much of the seismic we produce today is filtered out by our archaic display technology and consequently goes unobserved and uninterpreted.

What this means is that the subsurface images we work with today are needlessly fuzzy, indistinct and out of focus. It is a fact, although a fact that is hard to grasp, that our displays are so incredibly bad that we do not even process them with our visual system. The visual information that we record goes directly through the visual cortex without comment, leaving 500 million years of visual evolution behind in its wake.

And that, surprisingly, is a good thing.

It is, as I will prove, a brilliantly good thing, not only for exploration but for society, that current seismic displays were out of date a generation ago. It is a good thing because it means there is a lot of room for improvement. And we need improvement.

Consider this:

  • Oil demand rises at ~ 1Mbbls per year and shows no long-term signs of slowing down.

  • Most of that demand is met in the present and must be met in the future by conventional oil production, i.e., the type of oil we find with seismic.

  • Very unfortunately however, conventional oil production plateaued in 2004.

  • From 2004 to 2014, oil averaged $100 bbl. and yet conventional production significantly declined everywhere except the Middle East.

  • Even with the Middle East, we are barely breaking even.

The conclusion is that all of us in the industry must hope that the subsurface images that our seismic produces today are not as good as they are going to get. If we are to keep pace with demand, we need massively clearer subsurface images, and my visualization work suggests that is possible.

What my work suggests is that the seismic we work with today contains levels of subsurface detail that are filtered out by conventional seismic displays. I see it as my responsibility to prove that to the industry and provide workable solutions. To that end, for the past few weeks I have developed a new, soon to be released, program called “Seismic Visualization for the Transition (SVT)”. It will give front-line geoscientists the ability to prove to themselves that the seismic they have is much better than they think.

Although it is attacking a familiar problem from a different direction, SVT is very much inline with current thinking. I think it is fair to say that most geoscientist accept that we aren’t getting enough information out of our seismic. This, in my opinion, has led to the flourishing cultures of python development, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Geoscientists are looking for more. SVT teaches that we already have it. All we must do is observe it.

SVT is unquestionably the most ambitious and important project that I have undertaken, and I can’t wait to get started. But as much as I must deal with my technical work on visualization, I must deal with the fact that I am a different person now than I was just a few short weeks ago.

As a precursor to SVT, I have spent the past few weeks exploring the relationship of visualization to exploration; exploration to oil production; and oil production to society. It has been quite the few weeks because it has taken place against the backdrop of the cataclysm occurring in the Ukraine.

I am a student of WWII and a few weeks ago I believed that those days were behind us; I believed that Europe would never again see that type of unrestricted, brutal conflict. The horrific images emerging from Mariupol, Kyiv and elsewhere have proven me wrong. They have rocked the foundations of my philosophy on life.

Let me be clear. The war in the Ukraine is not about oil but it could never have begun if the world, and Europe in particular, were not reliant upon Russian oil. That, most obvious, fact has forced me to look beyond my technocratic obsessions and consider the role of oil to society, both past, present and future.

What has emerged from that analysis is the most profound change in my outlook on life, and the conclusions that began this post.

The world has changed, and I must change along with it. My days of working alone must necessarily come to an end. Even the most ardent explorer must eventually return to port and explain where they went; why they went there; and what the discovered when they got there. In my case, this goes beyond publishing my technical work in visualization. It includes the observations and analysis that has made me believe in the necessity of moving away from oil and why I believe that democracy will not flourish until we do.

My next step is to release “Seismic Visualization for the Transition”, leaving the explanation of the name until I finish the subsequent posts in this series.

Dr. Steven Lynch

April 18, 2022

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