Borehole stratigraphy and sedimentology

The interpretation of seismic reflection profiles provides a model for the stratigraphic and structural relationships that may exist in the subsurface. Data from these sources can provide some indicators of the lithologies in the subsurface, but a full geological picture can be obtained only by the addition of information on lithology and facies. This can be provided by drilling boreholes through the succession and either taking samples of the rocks and/or using geophysical tools to take detailed measurements of the rock properties. When a borehole is drilled there are a number of ways of collecting information from the subsurface, and these are briefly described below.

Borehole cuttings

In the course of drilling a deep borehole, a fluid is pumped down to the drill bit to lubricate it, remove the rock that has been cut (cuttings) and to counteract formation fluid pressures in the subsurface. Due to the weight of rocks above, fluids (water, oil and gas) trapped in porous and permeable strata will be under pressure, and without something to counteract that pressure they would rush to the surface up the borehole. The drilling fluid is therefore usually a ‘mud’, made up of a mixture of water or oil and powdered material, which gives the fluid a higher density: powdered barite (BaSO4) is often used because this mineral has a density of 4.48. The density of the drilling mud is varied to balance the pressure in the formations in the subsurface. The drilling mud is recirculated by being pumped down the inside of the drill string (pipe) and returning up the outside: because it is a dense, viscous fluid, it will bring the cuttings with it as it reaches the surface. The cuttings are filtered from the mud with a sieve and washed to provide a record of the strata that have been drilled. These cuttings are typically 1–5mm in diameter and are sieved out of the drilling mud at the surface. Recording the lithology of these drill chips (mud-logging) provides information about the rock types of the strata that have been penetrated by the borehole, but details such as sedimentary structures are not preserved. Microfossils such as foraminifera, nanofossils and palynomorphs can be recovered from cuttings and used in biostratigraphic analysis. There is usually a degree of mixing of material from different layers as the fluid returns up the borehole, so it is the depth at which a lithology or fossil first appears that is most significant.


A drill bit can be designed such that it cuts an annulus of rock away leaving a cylinder in the centre, a core, that can be brought up to the surface. Where coring is being carried out the drilling is halted and the section of core is brought up to the surface in a sleeve inside the hollow drill string. As each section of core is brought to the surface it is placed in a box, which is labelled to show the depth interval it was recovered from. Recovery is often incomplete, with only part of the succession drilled preserved, and the core may be broken up during drilling. The core is then usually cut vertically to provide a smooth-surfaced slab of rock that is typically 90 mm to 150 mm across, depending on the width of the borehole being drilled. Cores cut in this way provide a considerable amount of detail of the lithologies present, the small-scale sedimentary structures, body and trace fossils. In exploration for oil and gas and in the development of fields for hydrocarbon production, cores are cut through ‘target horizons’, that is, parts of the succession that have been identified from the interpretation of seismic interpretation as likely source rocks, or, more importantly, reservoir bodies. Core is usually only cut and recovered through these parts of the stratigraphy: the rest of the succession has to be interpreted on the basis of geophysical wireline logs. However, continuous cores may be cut through successions that cannot be interpreted satisfactorily using geophysical information alone, as can occur when the properties of the rock units do not allow differentiation between different lithologies using wireline logging tools. In contrast to oil and gas exploration, coal and mineral exploration normally involves taking a complete core through the section drilled. The width of the core that is cut is smaller, often just 40mm, and the core is not split vertically. The small size and the curved surface of the core may make it more difficult to recognise sedimentary structures than in the conventional, larger, split core used in oil and gas exploration, but the continuous core provides good vertical coverage of the drilled succession.

Core logging

The procedure for recording the details of the sedimentary rocks in a core is very similar to making a graphic sedimentary log of a succession exposed in the field. Core logging sheets are similar in format to field logging sheets, and the same types of information are recorded (lithology, bed thickness, bed boundaries, sedimentary structures, biogenic structures, and so on). The scale is usually 1:20 or 1:50. In some ways recording information about strata from core is easier than field description. If the core recovery is good then there will be an almost complete record of the succession, including the finer grained lithologies. Weathering of mudrocks in the field usually means that they are less well preserved than the coarser beds, but in core this tends to be less of a problem, although weaker, finer grained beds will often break up more during the drilling. The main limitations are those imposed by the width of the core. It is not possible to see the lateral geometry of the beds and recognise features such as channels easily, and only parts of larger scale sedimentary structures are preserved. On the other hand, the details of ripple-scale features may be more easily seen on the smooth, cut surface of a core. Palaeocurrent data can be recorded from sedimentary structures only if the orientation of the core has been recorded during the drilling process, and this is not always possible. The other, not insignificant, difference between core and outcrop is that the geologist can carry out the recording of data in the relative comfort of a core store, although it is unlikely to be such an interesting environment to work in as a field location in an exotic place. Not all cores pass through the strata at right angles to the bedding. If the strata are tilted then a vertical drill core will cut through the beds at an angle, so all bed boundaries and sedimentary structures observed in the core will be inclined. During the development phase of oil and gas extraction, drilling is often directed along pathways (directional drilling) that can be at any angle, including horizontal. Interpretation of inclined and near-horizontal cores therefore requires information about the angle of the well.


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