Applied Geodynamics Laboratory


The Applied Geodynamics Laboratory (AGL) was established in mid-1988 by Martin Jackson. Since 1980, he had focused on salt-tectonics research in the Gulf of Mexico and Iran, after a previous research and teaching career in structural and metamorphic geology of high-grade metamorphic and igneous Precambrian terranes in Africa.

The AGL was designed to fill a noteworthy gap. In 1988, there were no full-scale tectonic modeling laboratories in U.S. academia although several existed elsewhere and in industry.

Presentations to and discussions with many oil companies in early 1988 by Martin and Marcus Milling (then BEG Associate Director) convinced us that the oil industry would support a tectonic modeling laboratory specializing in salt tectonics. The AGL was therefore established as a consortium of Industrial Associates. Membership was on an annual basis, but the goal was a long-term research project staffed by fulltime professionals.

The AGL and the Reservoir Characterization Research Laboratory were the first large-scale, IA-supported consortia at the BEG. The BEG Director, William Fisher, obtained seed money of about $100,000 from The University of Texas at Austin to equip the laboratory. The largest single purchase was a high-speed, high-capacity centrifuge. This was selected on the basis of Martin's experience modeling as a Visiting Scientist at Uppsala University in 1984 and from considerable advice and assistance from Professors Talbot and Dixon

kavir map

Salt canopy (first published in 1987)

seismic weld

Salt weld (1989)


Reactive diapir (1990)


Control of sedimentation rate on shapes of passive diapir and salt sheets (1990)


Falling diapir (1990)

mock turtle

Mock turtle anticline (1992)


Extrusive salt sheets (1994)


Squeezed diapir criteria (1995)


Radial extension and mini-basin formation (1995)

fault families

Fault Families (1999)

The first researcher recruited for AGL was Bruno Vendeville. He joined in early 1989 after completing a post-doctoral appointment at Texas A&M University, during which he had built a basic deformation rig at their Center for Tectonophysics. Bruno was highly experienced in all types of extensional tectonics and the technique of sand-and-silicone modeling from his Ph.D. research at Rennes University. For salt tectonics, sand-and-silicone was a superior technique to the more-sophisticated centrifuge approach. This method has been continually refined and has provided the core of AGL's modeling program ever since. Bruno left in 2003 to take up a tenured position at the University of Lille, France.

A few months later in 1989, Dan Schultz-Ela was recruited for mathematical modeling, based on his strain-analysis expertise gained from a PhD at the University of Minnesota. Dan's early work at AGL focused on analytical forward modeling and software development of Restore (structural restoration) and GridStrain (strain analysis). Later, he focused on 2-D and 3-D finite-element modeling of salt structures. Dan left AGL in 2004 to take a position in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University).

In 1993, Giovanni Guglielmo was recruited for his skills in 3-D visualization and multimedia publications. Giovanni had completed a post-doctoral appointment at The University of California at Santa Barbara focusing on strain analysis in batholiths. Within a short while, Giovanni pioneered the AGL website, made our first animations of models and restorations, and produced 3-D visualizations of physical models. He left in 1998.

Mike Hudec joined the research team in 2000 after part-time research contributions the previous year while on the faculty of Baylor University. His skills in petroleum exploration, structural restoration, 3-D model building and visualization, and workstation seismic interpretation were developed at Exxon Production Research and a PhD at The University of Wyoming. Mike has joined Martin Jackson in regional studies of several salt basins. His specialties are palinspastic restoration of salt structures and relating salt tectonics to basin evolution. He was promoted to Co-Principal Investigator in 2002 to share leadership of AGL with Martin, and became sole Principal Investigator in 2014.

Tim Dooley arrived at AGL in November 2003, to take over AGL's physical modeling program from Bruno Vendeville. His previous position was as a Senior Researcher/Laboratory Manager for the Fault Dynamics Research Group, Royal Holloway University, London. He brought with him a record of innovative modeling techniques and striking graphics displays. Under Tim's leadership the AGL physical modeling laboratory has become one of the most modern in the world, featuring automated digital cameras, a surface laser scanner, 3 new modular deformation rigs, and Digital Image Correlation software.

Jozina (Josie) Dirkzwager joined the research team in May 2006, to fill the numerical modeling gap left by Dan Schultz-Ela when he departed for a teacher's life in Colorado. Originally trained as a structural geologist, she spent 4 years at the Geophysical Institute of Karlsruhe University, Germany cross-training to a numerical modeler. Her research focused on modeling the advance of salt sheets. She left AGL in 2007 to join her husband Peter Connolly at Chevron in Houston.

The finite-element program received another rebirth in August 2009 with the arrival of post-doctoral fellows Gang Luo and Maria Nikolinakou. These two positions were jointly funded and supervised by AGL and Peter Flemings' UTGeoFluids consortia. Maria came to us with an Sc.D. from MIT in Geotechnical Engineering, and Gang with a Ph.D. in Computational Dynamics from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Their work has focused on 2.5 D models of stresses and fluid pressures around salt structures, using soil-mechanics models to describe the rheology of the sediments. Maria was promoted to a full-time research position in 2010, and Gang followed in 2011.

Post-doctoral fellows Dan Carruthers and Mahdi Heidari Moghadam both joined AGL in 2013. Dan came with a Ph.D. in structural geology from Cardiff University, UK. He has been working on structural analysis and restoration of part of the Santos Basin, Brazil. Mahdi joined us with a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from UT Austin. He has joined Gang and Maria in our finite-element modeling group.

Several Master's and PhD students, mostly from The University of Texas at Austin, have spent months or years working at AGL for their graduate research. In order of arrival, these included Sean BoernerShing-Tzong LinHongxing GeMary JohnsBrent Couzens (Texas A&M), Patrick WalshJoel Le CalvezRyan MannAsif MuzaffarLaurent Boniface (Universite de Perpignan, France), Christine Fox and Lies Loncke (Geosciences Azur, France), Vernon Moore (Texas A&M), Pedro Gomez, and Michael Braunscheidel.

In addition, AGL has been fortunate to host several Visiting Scientists, many of whom provided their own funding to work with us: John Sclater (The University of Texas), Hemin Koyi (Uppsala University, Sweden), Ruud Weijermars (Uppsala University, Sweden), Jean-Pierre Bobineau (EuroSim, France), Olivier Merle (Universite de Rennes, France), Peter Cobbold (Universite de Rennes, France), Elisabetta Costa (Universita di Parma, Italy), Virginie Gaullier (Universite de Perpignan, France), and Chris Jackson (Imperial College, England).

The AGL grew at a time when concepts of salt tectonics were changing rapidly and radically. In the early 1980s, only a handful of researchers published a few papers that advanced understanding of salt tectonics-rather than merely used existing concepts. The most seminal of these contributions was a series of papers on an Iranian salt glacier by Christopher Talbot and coworkers at the University of Dundee (Scotland). By the late 1980s, the study of salt tectonics exploded. Huge amounts of seismic data from salt basins were being scrutinized for hydrocarbon exploration, and the first truly realistic salt-tectonic models were being generated by Bruno and colleagues at Rennes University, to be followed by those from AGL. This revolution completely rebuilt the conceptual framework of salt tectonics and widened the field of view from the narrow periphery of salt domes into the role of salt on entire continental margins. Research at AGL contributed greatly to this revolution in understanding, either solo, in collaboration with industry research groups, or merely in parallel with such groups.

For its first 10 years, the AGL concentrated on tectonic modeling. In 1998, while continuing the modeling program at full strength, we introduced an equally large program of seismic-based geological studies in scientifically rewarding basins. The goal was to apply the new concepts gained by modeling to test and refine these concepts on natural basins and to use these geologic studies to guide further modeling. We initially selected the deepwater central Kwanza Basin of Angola. Research by Martin and Mike was expanded onshore to include a geotraverse across the entire 360-km-wide salt basin. In 2001, we began research on the Lower Congo Basin in deepwater southern Gabon. Since then, additional projects have been completed or are underway in the northern and southern Gulf of Mexico, Mauritania, Brazil, and Kazakhstan.

During our early phase of finite-element modeling under Dan Schultz-Ela, the primary goal was to understanding the driving forces of salt flow under a variety of configurations. More recently, our collaboration with Peter Flemings' UTGeofluids consortium has emphasized on the evolution of stresses and fluid pressures around salt structures. This represents a change in focus towards helping member companies predict and deal with drilling hazards typically encountered around salt.

University of Texas at Austin

University of Texas

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