Grain Size and Depositional Environment
There are four primary ways to estimate depositional environment from well logs:
  1. shale volume/grain size analysis
  2. dip spread/water depth analysis
  3. bedding angle/bedding type analysis
  4. curve shape/depositional sequence analysis

All of the techniques rely on a strong correlation between depositional environment and the energy needed to produce certain characteristics that we can see on well logs over the rock sequence.

Depositional energy level correlates well to grain size, which in turn is usually proportional to shale volume. Thus the gamma ray or SP curve can augment environment estimates from dipmeter analysis. Low values of gamma ray (or high SP) indicate high energy, low shale content zones. These are inner shelf or upper continental slope in a marine environment, or alluvial or fluvial regimes on the continent.

Higher shale volume indicates lower energy deposition; that is, deeper water outer shelf, lower continental slope, continental lacrustine, or paludal environments.

Curve shape analysis depends almost entirely on the shape of the SP or GR curves versus depth, so the shale volume/grain size/depositional energy relationship is a strong component of our analysis method. The reconstructed resistivity curve from the dipmeter or a microresistivity curve can also be used as a grain size indicator in shaly sand sequences. An example is shown below, from a SYNDIP presentation.


Grain size estimates from log curves (SYNDIP)

A combination of curve shape and bedding patterns are used to differentiate the ambiguity obvious in the above discussion. Grain size alone, as indicated by shale content, is not a sufficient criteria to determine the environment, but it does help distinguish high, medium, and low energy environments.

Dip Spread and Depositional Environment
For most situations, the spread in the dip angle values correlates to energy level, as shown below.

Depositional environment, water depth, and dip scatter

Dip scatter and water depth

The continental slope and abyssal plain zones also have distinctive energy patterns, with very high energy at the upper slope, due to slumping and turbidity currents. Energy levels decrease rapidly with distance from the upper slope. This results in dip ranges of 60 degrees in the upper slope zone to a few degrees in the abyss, corresponding to Zones 4, 5, and 6.

Dips on the continental zone range up to 20 degrees for fluvial deposits and 45 degrees for eolian and alluvial deposits.

Dip Spread in Various Depositional Environments

Zone Energy Features Grain Dip Range Water Depth
  Level   Size degrees feet
Continental High Scree slopes V. Coarse 20 - 45 0 - 50
Zone 0   Alluvial fans Coarse 0 - 30  
  Medium Braided stream Medium 0 - 20  
    Point bars Fine 0 - 20  
  Low Channel fill V.Fine 0 - 10  
  High Glacial till Mixed scattered  
    Eolian dunes Coarse 10 - 45  
Inner Shelf High Sand bars Coarse 0 - 30 0 - 50
Zone 1   Tidal channels Medium 0 - 25  
    Ebb deltas   0 - 25  
    Flood deltas   0 - 20  
    Washover fans   0 - 20  
Middle Shelf Medium Distributary Medium 0 - 15 50 - 300
Zone 2   channels      
    Longshore current   0 - 15  
    Distributary Coarse 0 - 20  
Outer Shelf Low Distributary Fine 0 - 5 300 - 600
Zone 3   channels      
    Longshore current   0 - 5  
    Distributary Medium 0 - 5  
Upper Slope High Slide cut channels Coarse 0 - 60 600 - 1000
Zone 4   Turbidite fans   0 - 60  
Lower Slope Medium Slide cut channels Medium 0 - 25 1000 - 3000
Zone 5   Turbidite fans   0 - 25  
Abyssal Plain Low Turbidite Fans Fine 0 - 5 3000+
Zone 6          

Even though energy level, water depth, and grain size can be inferred from logs, this is still not enough information to segregate all sedimentary structures.

Current Bedding and Depositional Environment
The geometry of a sandstone unit is related to its internal structures, which are functions of its depositional environment. The internal structure is influenced mostly by current bedding. The direction of paleocurrents is indicated by the orientation of the current bedding, which can be measured by using dipmeter data after removal of structural dip. This direction is an aid to tracking the reservoir, but the correct model for the reservoir must be chosen before the direction information is of any use.

The term current bedding is used to describe the beds laid down in a channel parallel to the direction of current flow. The current beds will dip downward in the direction of the current flow and will be from a few inches to a few feet thick.

Crossbedding, although the term suggests otherwise, is also parallel to the direction of current flow. However, crossbeds do not often occur in river channels but usually on the front of deltas or shallow marine sand bars. Crossbeds dip considerably more steeply, but in the same direction, as the dips of the delta or sand bar surface.

Planar or tabular bedding, as the words suggest, involve flat layers of rock (maybe lying at an angle) laid down in streams, lakes, or in deltas. Festoon bedding creates layers which are convex top and bottom, and are usually laid down in braided streams. Wedge shaped or nonparallel bedding is planar bedding with concurrent erosion which has removed a portion of the bed, such as on the curve of a meandering river. Examples of these bedding patterns are given below.

Bedding patterns

As described earlier, a strong correlation exists between depositional energy and grain size of the rocks. The larger the grain size, the greater the depositional energy. Therefore, steep current bedding, which can only be supported by large grains, is usually interpreted as high energy deposition. Flatter beds represent lower energy deposition. This rule usually holds when deposition occurs in a place away from the transportation artery, such as in a delta front or when deposition is associated with ocean wave energy.

However, this rule could be broken when deposition and transportation occur simultaneously, as in a channel, where the highest energy may produce the flattest, even reversed, current bedding dips.

Specific sedimentary environments give rise to characteristic patterns of current bedding dips versus depth. Such patterns, seen on the dipmeter plot, can be used to help identify the depositional environment. For example, most bar type deposits will exhibit a high dip angle in the upper part, decreasing to a low angle near the base.

Bedding Characteristics in Various Depositional Environments

Depositional Current Bedding Current Bedding
Environment Characteristics Orientation
Glacial deposits None or very fine varves Non or down paleoslope
    Direction of sand elongation
Braided stream Festoon (trough) type Unimodal large scatter
alluvium Steep dip Generally down pateoslope
    Direction of sand elongation
Meandering stream Festoon (trough) type Unimodal - severe scatter
point bars Large dip spread Generally down paleoslope
  Higher angle at base Direction of meander belt and
  Low angle tabular at top sand body alignment
Eolian dunes Tabular - high angle Little scatter
  Extremely consistent No relation to paleoslope
  Decreasing angle at base Normal to sand elongation
Delta distributary Festoon - tabular Unimodal - moderate scatter
channels Higher angle at base In seaward direction
  Moderate spread Direction of sand elongation
Distributary mouth Tabular moderate angle Unimodal - radiation
bars (>10 degrees) seaward direction but
  Higher angle at top by longshore currents
  Moderate spread Direction of sand elongation
Estuarine & tidal Tabular - low angle Bimodal (180 deg) -
channels (<10 degrees) Normal to coastline
  Higher angle at base Direction of sand
  Flatter at top  
Beaches and bars Tabular Unimodal - possibly bimodal
  Low angle on seaward Usually down paleoslope
  Side (<10 deg) possibly reversed
  High angle on lagoonal Normal to sand elongation
  side (<20 deg)  
Marine shelf Tabular Polymodal - random sands
  Very low angle throughout  
Turbidites Tabular or absent Unimodal
  Very low angle throughout Down paleoslope
  Rarely observable Direction of sand elongation

This table is adapted from "Reservoir Delineation By Wireline Techniques" by J.F.Goetz, W.J.Prins, and J.F.Logan, published in The Log Analyst, June, 1977.

To evaluate current bedding, its characteristics (type, angle, pattern, spread) and its orientation (direction and scatter) are considered together. The above tables should be used in conjunction with the sedimentary model descriptions given later in this Chapter.

In case of a conflict between evidence supplied by the various approaches, current bedding patterns should overrule curve shapes, because the dipmeter has better resolution. This extends to the determination of the boundaries of genetic units. Sometimes the incoming material may change while the same depositional conditions persist, with the result that lithological unit boundaries may not match those of genetic units. One genetic unit may be made up of more than one lithological unit or vice versa. Interpretation involving sedimentary structures is based on genetic units and should not be too strongly influenced by lithology variations.

Curve Shape Analysis and Depositional Environment
Grain size and bedding both influence the overall curve shape of a log versus depth. There are four basic curve shapes:

1. straight line, indicating constant shale, evaporite, clean sand, or carbonate, caused by continuous deep water deposition

2. bell shaped, indicating a fining upward sequence, ie., lower energy at the end of a cycle

3. funnel shaped, indicating a coarsening upward sequence, ie higher energy at the end of a cycle

4. cylindrical shaped, indicating constant energy throughout the cycle

The last three are the usual patterns considered in an environment analysis. Variations exist. Serrated patterns are caused by abrupt changes in energy, resulting in layers of silt or shale interbedded in an otherwise regular pattern. Short patterns way be imbedded in longer ones. Thus, short coarsening upward patterns may contribute to a larger coarsening upward pattern. Patterns of all three kinds may be imbedded in one larger one.

Fining upward, coarsening upward, and cylindrical curve shape

Curve Shapes in Various Depositional Environments

Curve Shape    
Pattern Characteristics Represents
Bell Transitional upper boundary Alluvial point bar sands
  Abrupt lower boundary Distributary channel fill
  Smooth or serrated Transgressive marine sand
    Drape over reef
    Drape inside channel
    Tidal channel
Funnel Abrupt upper boundary Barrier bar
  Transitional lower boundary Delta front
  Smooth or serrated Regressive marine sand
    Foreset bedding
    Distributary front
    Distributary mouth bar
Cylinder Abrupt top and bottom Distributary channel fill
  Smooth or serrated Turbidite fan
    Submarine canyon fan
    Eolian Dunes
Funnel - Bell Transitional top and bottom Marine shelf sand
Straight line No character Deep water continuous
    Carbonate bank
    Marine shale

These shapes are most obvious on gamma ray and SP curves, but may also be derived from resistivity (on a logarithmic scale), porosity, or a computed curve. In particular, the synthetic resistivity curve on the dipmeter arrow plot or SYNDIP presentation are widely used.


Combining the rules for grain size indicators, dip spread, current bedding, and curve shape is a formidable task. Add to this the palynology and paleontology (micro and macro fossils), as well as the lithology descriptions, and you have an almost undecipherable problem to solve. A rule based expert system could be constructed from the tables given above. An example is shown below, from a USGS program.

USGS expert system to determine depositional environment

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