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A review of global interpretation methods for automated

3D horizon picking
Jack Hoyes, University of Leeds
Thibaut Cheret, BG Group

raditionally, 3D seismic interpretation has been achieved

through extraction of 2D sections around closed loops
such that the beginning and end are coincident, a process
known as loop tying (Lomask and Guitton, 2007). Using this
approach it is often found that errors in picking result in misties. A more advanced method uses seed-based autotacking
to extract horizons by correlation of local wavelet amplitude
between neighboring traces; however, mis-ties may also occur
here as two paths converge, again due to errors in picking.
Additionally these traditional amplitude-based autopickers
can fail if the horizon being tracked has significant lateral
amplitude variation or polarity reversal or in the presence of
a large fault throw.
Generally, these methods are labor-intensive, time-consuming, and often limited to regions with clear signal quality
and relatively simple geology. Their weakness is that they use
only a small fraction of the data at a time, solving only a series
of local problems. Often, these programs simply require picking in a 2D vertical section as humans are most proficient at
this; however, computers are not limited to two dimensions
and may be able to take advantage of the full dimensionality
of the data and offer solutions based upon all of the data. In
this respect, the use of computers in 3D volume interpretation has not reached its full potential (Lomask and Guitton).
Recently, however, global approaches have been proposed
to compute geological models directly from the seismic data
without the need to pick all horizons manually (Pauget et
al., 2009). Unlike methods, which track a horizon away from
a seedpoint and are therefore prone to mis-ties, these algorithms are global in nature since they simultaneously track
every surface throughout the volume (Lomask and Guitton).
They are able to exploit the full dimensionality of the data to
interpret multiple horizons in parallel, using the whole data
set to find a minimum misfit solution, potentially offering a
more accurate solution. In this way they attempt to capture
several geological features such as faults and horizons simultaneously. They may be subdivided into three major categories
termed here dip-driven, horizon patches, and global optimization methods. In this communication, we will describe
these methods and discuss their domain of application and
current limitations.
Dip-driven methods
Dip-driven methods use local dip and azimuth information
at each grid position within the volume to autotrack all seismic events within the volume in parallel by fitting surfaces to
the local dip in an optimal configuration.
Chevon method. Lomask and Guitton developed a method for dip-based global interpretation as a means of flattening
seismic data cubes along particular horizons. In this method,

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Figure 1. Summary of the steps involved in OpendTects SSIS method

of automated horizon interpretation.

seismic events are autotracked by following the local dip and

azimuth calculated from the gradient of the seismic data at
every sample position. At each point in the image, two dips
are estimated in the x and y directions. Because each point
in the image has two dips, each horizon is estimated from an
overdetermined system of dips in a least-squares sense. This
is equivalent to automatically loop-tying every possible loop
simultaneously. To further exploit the dimensionality of the
data, all horizons are estimated at once in 3D to conform to
one another. If there is noise in the data, the resulting model
will have significant errors and so hard constraints must be
introduced in the form of traditional semi-automatically
tracked horizons.
SSIS. The Sequence Stratigraphic Interpretation System
(SSIS) plug-in in OpendTect is a relatively new interpretation software package which is based upon the dip-driven
interpretation method and is able to autotrack numerous
chronostratigraphic events per sequence bounded by conventionally mapped horizons (de Bruin and Bouanga, 2007).
In the SSIS workflow, major horizons are first mapped over
the 3D volume using a traditional, semi-automated, horizon
tracker. These horizons provide the bounding constraints
on the intermediate chronostratigraphic events to be interpreted using this new method. The intermediate events are
tracked through each seismic sample position using either a
model- or data-driven approach. The data-driven approach
considered here is required for relatively complex geometries
and is based upon dip steering. First, a steering cube containing local dip-azimuth information at each sample position is
calculated from the input seismic cube after processing such
as filtering of the data to improve dip information (i.e., re-

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move noise). This is done in the inline direction by locating

a minimum or maximum in the trace and then looking for a
similar event on the two neighboring traces in the inline direction. The gradient at that sample location is the difference
in the time values of the extrema across these neighboring
traces divided by the horizontal distance between the traces
(Figure 1a). This process is repeated in the crossline direction. Next, the dip-azimuth information is followed outward
from a seed position and horizons are created between sample
positions following the local dip (Figure 1b). The result is
a set of tracked chronostratigraphic horizons going through
each sample position and bounded by the mapped horizons
(Lightenberg et al. 2006).
Horizon patches methods
Within these methods, a subsurface model may be derived
from classification of topological relationships between small
surfaces of similar seismic attributes which may be merged
to form larger horizons ordered chronologically (Pauget et
al. 2009).
Extrema. In the Extrema method from Schlumberger,
seismic events are automatically grouped into classes based
on similarities in the waveform of the seismic signal. First,
a polynomial function is fitted to each seismic trace and
minima and maxima along each trace detected with subseismic precision using this function (Figure 2a). Next, a set
of waveform attributes are calculated at these extrema positions, again using the polynomial expression. These attributes
contain overall information about the waveform in a vertical window around the extrema and are constructed using
reconstruction techniques on the seismic trace such that the
seismic signal locally is described through a limited number
of coefficients (Borgos et al., 2003). Horizons of similar attributes along a lateral series of extrema are then constructed
and from this data cube, continuous, class consistent, surface
segments can be extracted (Figure 2b). These constitute pieces
of seismic horizons which can then be combined by the interpreter. The algorithm aids in this interpretation process by
mapping relative vertical positions of surfaces and therefore
computing chronological relationships between them which
may be used to highlight only a small number of surfaces
representing a similar age or as an attribute to merge patches.
Cognitive vision. IFP has developed a method of seismic
interpretation through the construction of horizon patches
using an approach based upon cognitive vision. Cognitive
vision combines computer-based vision with cognition to
achieve functionalities of detection, localization, recognition,
and understandingabilities well suited to the seismic interpretation problem (Verney et al., 2008). The method first
involves detecting first-order reflector continuity, characterizing seismic parameters of each reflector such as amplitudes,
thickness and 2D dip. Next, chronological relationships between reflectors are mapped. The last step of the workflow
involves forming geological horizons corresponding to the
various identified reflectors by linking nodes of reflector
patches which have similar attributes and are located at similar distances above or below at least one other reflector. Since

Figure 2. Summary of the steps involved in Schlumbergers Extrema

method of automated horizon interpretation.

Figure 3. Summary of the steps in the Ellis Paleoscan method of

automated horizon interpretation.

the result is a set of chronologically ordered horizons, these

may be used for sequence stratigraphic interpretation and the
construction of a Wheeler diagram (Verney et al.) although
the latter is not currently incorporated into the software. A
fault detection and enhancement feature has also been built
into this method.
Seisnetics. The Seisnetics software uses a genetic algorithm
to generate horizon and fault patches. Genetic algorithms are
adaptive methods which are able to solve optimization problems based on stochastic search methods (see www.seisnetics.
Global optimization method
This method models data using cost-function minimization
based on links between seismic samples within a 3D data set.
Sets of links between seismic samples or bins are detected
using correlation images obtained from couples of seismic
traces. The degree of correlation between each link is estiJanuary 2011

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Figure 4. Extraction of the geomodel across a fault using a global optimization algorithm (Pauget et al.). This figure summarizes the three main
steps: (a) link creation in the model grid, (b) computation of positions, and (c) creation of the geomodel in block 3D.

mated using a cost function which measures the consistency

of the model according to the underlying seismic signal. The
cost function is related to the seismic similarity and geological consistency and also depends on distance. The optimal
model is then constrained by moving links locally to achieve
a global minimum (Pauget et al., 2009).
This is the fundamental approach behind the Paleoscan
algorithm developed by Eliis ( Firstly, seismic
traces are sampled to construct a regular grid in the x-y plane
(Figure 3a). This process uses every point in each trace which
may require binning of samples for larger surveys to reduce
computational cost. Links between these gridded points are
then determined via the computation of a correlation image
for each pair of neighboring traces (Figure 3b). The correlation image of two seismic traces, X1 and X2, is an array
of correlation values between each pair of samples on each
trace in the X1(t) - X2(t) plane such that every point on the
image corresponds to a link between a point on X1 and a
point on X2. A point with a high correlation value corresponds to a link of high probability and when a set of high
probability links is drawn on a line segment a correlation
comb is obtained which links several seismic reflectors. The
algorithm aims to detect the correlation comb with the greatest correlation value. This correlation comb provides a set of
links which may then be used to compute a global position
for every point on the sampling grid (Figure 3c). This results
in an initial configuration of the geomodel block. However,
this model must then be enhanced by determining the configuration with the lowest cost function which still represents
the consistency of the model according to the underlying
seismic signal (Figure 3d). This cost function is the weighted
sum of the seismic vector distances between couples of points
(Pauget et al.)

where N is the number of points inside the grid G, p(i) and

P(j) are the positions of the points i and j, Dst(Vi, Vj) is the
seismic vector distance between couples of points and is the

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approximate distance between seismic points in the volume.

This function is minimized by moving links locally until a
global minimum is achieved.
Geological constraints such as faults and surfaces can be
inserted into the optimization process to further constrain
the model by reducing the number of solutions. Once the
best configuration is obtained, it is then possible to establish
weighted relationships between every seismic sample in the
volume and from this a continuous geomodel is computed
(Gupta et al., 2008).
Limitations and existing improvements
General limitations. These global interpretation methods
rely on the stratified nature of the seismic image and will
therefore struggle to handle nonstratified objects such as salt,
igneous intrusions, gas chimneys, and chaotic deposition.
These features could simply be worked around (Gupta et al.).
Volume interpretation (combination of 3D attributes) is the
most appropriate approach to characterize nonstratified objects. Acquisition and processing artifacts, such as multiples
and migration hyperbolae, will also disrupt these algorithms
and so, in order to produce a geologically accurate interpretation, all reflections must be geologically meaningful. This
highlights a potential limitation of these methods in that it
requires high-quality data in order to produce a valid geological model of the subsurface. Finally, faults with large throw
typically make correlation of horizons across faults difficult.
However, some of these methods offer improvements over
traditional techniques in doing this.
Stratigraphic interpretation. By classifying the seismic signal along reflectors according to similarity in its shape, the
Extrema interpretation method performs well in structurally complex regions or on sparse 3D volumes (Borgos et al.,
2003). A principal assumption of the Extrema method is that
the seismic signal along a reflector does not vary significantly
laterally such that class-consistent horizon patches are likely
to be a continuous part of a specific horizon. This assumption enables grouping of reflector segments with similar characteristics in structurally complex regions since the method

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Figure 5. Neural network result mapped on a horizon. The algorithm has classified gas sands in red, brine sands in blue, the thin bed in brown,
and the surrounding shale in white.

Figure 6. Mapping of (a) thickness variations, (b) coherency, and (c) fault throw on the surface stack at the scale of the entire volume.

does not assume continuity in the geometric primitives. In

this way, for example, the method allows faulted reflectors to
be represented, even allowing for automatic quantification of
fault displacement through a separate Ant tracking algorithm
(Borgos et al., 2003). However, the assumption of lateral continuity of the reflection for a given horizon is also a weakness
of the method. For example the presence of hydrocarbons
often causes lateral discontinuities in reflector characteristics

such as bright spot, dim spot, or phase reversal. This assumption does, though, mean that the algorithm deals well with
stratigraphic lateral discontinuities such as truncations rather
than attempt to force a lateral continuation of horizons which
is not actually observed.
Fault handling. Faults are discontinuities within the seismic signal and as such they prevent easy correlation between
different blocks. Most global methods therefore require major
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Figure 7. Features in the seismic such as this circular anomaly which are not easily seen in a vertical cross section (a) may be clear if the seismic
amplitude is mapped onto strata slices (b).

faults to be imported for use as discontinuity constraints. This

is a particular weakness of the dip-driven methods since faults
are regions of anomalous dip and often accompanied by much
wider regions of deformation than the fault plane itself. To address this problem, Lomask and Guitton applied a weighted
inversion scheme allowing dips to be summed around faults.
These weights may be obtained from a previously determined
fault model, if their location and orientation are known, or
by using iteratively reweighted least squares. By applying constraints such as fault and horizon picks to the dip-based algorithm, it was demonstrated to work in faulted and noisy 3D
field data examples. Because the method picks many horizons
within a data set at once, globally, in a least-squares sense, it
minimizes the effect of locally poor dip information so that
the interpretation is more reliable in these areas.
Schlumberger has proposed a workflow combining the
Extrema and Ant Tracking algorithms to build the structural
model. The PaleoScan interface allows the user to create links
to correlate horizons on both sides of a fault (Figure 4). Eliis
(PaleoScan), Seisnetics and IFP have adapted their algorithms
to extract fault patches. Schlumberger (Borgos et al.) and Eliis
(PaleoScan) can also calculate the vertical throw. The vertical
throw can be used to distinguish genuine faults from other
Volume interpretation. We define volume interpretation
as the grouping of seismic voxels into classes of similar seismic signature using 3D seismic attributes. Those classes can
describe depositional environment, lithology, fluid or any

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combination of the above. There are several methods to perform a volume interpretation: crossplot, multiregression, any
mathematical combination of seismic attributes, neural network, and Bayesian classification using inversion products.
The choice of techniques depends on the quality and availability of the data. Volume interpretation is particularly well
equipped to compensate for the shortcomings of the global
interpretation to characterize nonstratified objects (Figure 5
and Figure 6).
Global interpretation methods are opening a new dimension
in seismic characterization and offer a large range of potential applications which would otherwise be time-consuming
or very difficult to perform. A number of these are reviewed
Strata slicing. PaleoScan and SSIS allow the user to slice
a volume along geological boundaries (Figure 7). This slicing reveals geological features unseen using traditional slicing
methods (Figure 8) and offers an improved understanding
of the depositional history independently from the tectonics
(Gupta et al.), the ability to image shallow subsurface drilling
hazards, for example.
Sequence stratigraphy. SSIS is a mature tool to detect the
different elements of a stratigraphic sequence (Figure 8). Ultimately, the sequence stratigraphy analysis helps to determine
in 3D areas of high prospectivity related to the sand quality
distribution. PaleoScan proposes to detect sequence bound-

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Figure 8. Result of interpretation of a synthetic seismic channel (top)

using PaleoScan (center) and SSIS (bottom).

aries using the thickness attribute (vertical derivation of the

geomodel). Area of low relative thickness could be associated
with condensation layer, erosion or channel incision.
The SSIS, Chevron and Schlumberger methods all produce a Wheeler diagram through flattening chronostratigraphic horizons in time (in which the vertical dimension
becomes geological time). For example in the SSIS workflow,
local dips calculated over the entire seismic volume are resolved into time or depth shifts relative to the reference trace
using a nonlinear Gauss-Newton iterative approach allowing
horizons to be flattened in time to generate a 3D Wheeler
cube (Lightenberg et al., 2006). Stark (2004) achieves a similar result to the algorithm of Lomask and Guitton (2007)
by unwrapping using instantaneous phase rather than dips;
however, the advantage of using dip rather than instantaneous phase reduces problems with cycle skipping.
Fault throw. Global interpretation algorithms can be used
to extract fault patches and calculate the vertical throw (Figure 9). Potentially, this vertical throw could be used to guide
well placement, help 3D reconstruction and perform fault
seal analysis.
Well correlation. Due to the large number of finely spaced
horizons that may be extracted using these methods, they offer potential for well correlation if tied to a number of wells
intersecting these horizons (Figure 10).
Modeling. These interpretation methods can be used
in the construction of background geological models for
low-frequency models in seismic inversion or prior models
in Bayesian classification (Figure 11). This is because such
methods are potentially faster. A primary advantage of glob-

Figure 9. Example of vertical throw mapped on a seismic horizon and on fault plan in 3D view (via the PaleoScan method).
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Figure 10. Application of PaleoScan for correlation between wells. A shale layer with thickness of 15 m can be correlated from well 1 to well 2.

Figure 11.
Application of
PaleoScan to the
generation of a
prior geological
model for use in
Bayesian facies
(Top) Prior
gas probability
and (bottom)
resulting Bayesian
gas probability

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R e s e rv oi r c h a r a c t e r i z at i on
al interpretation algorithms is that they are able to extract
many horizons within large volumes relatively quickly and
The horizon patches methods provide the most signal-consistent results. Schlumberger (Extrema), dGB (SSIS) and
Chevron have developed sequence stratigraphy functionalities. The Chevron method is the most direct way to derive
a Wheeler diagram from a seismic volume. Generating a
Wheeler doesnt seem out of the reach of the other methods. Eliis (PaleoScan), dGB (SSIS) and Chevron can perform
strata slicing. The horizons patches methods dont seem to be
the best equipped to develop toward strata slicing. PaleoScan
seems to be the most advanced tool for handling and extracting faults. Eliis (PaleoScan) and Schlumberger (Extrema)
can also calculate the vertical throw; Schlumberger requires
an additional algorithm to perform this task (Ant Tracking).
PaleoScan has gone a step further by allowing the user to
modify the resulting geomodel interactively.
The global interpretation methods assume that the seismic
data are a perfect representation of the Earths geology.
Therefore, these methods will fail to converge when the seismic signal is degraded or in the presence of artifacts such as
multiples, migration wings or smiles. In order to overcome
these shortcomings, it has become obvious that the addition
of manual constraints, based on more traditional methods of interpretation, must be added to help the algorithm
to converge to the underlying geological truth. As shown
in Figure 10, global interpretation can be used to correlate
any depth location of a well to the same geological layer in
another well. In conjunction with traditional seismic well-tie
techniques, this could help in building more accurate reservoir and velocity models. Another challenge is the capability of those methods to capture sequence boundaries, which
are not clear seismic horizons (low acoustic contrast), such
as channel incision base. Finally, the global interpretation
algorithm should be scalable and handle an ever increasing
seismic volume.

In the last decade, various groups have developed global interpretation algorithms. Some of the algorithms are coming
to maturity, enabling geophysics to extract even more information from the seismic volume at a scale unseen before.
Combined with the traditional local and volume interpretation, we foresee that the global interpretation will become
part of the routine workflow for exploration and reservoir
model building.

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International Meeting, SEG, Expanded Abstracts, 154144.
de Bruin, G., and E. C. Bouanga, 2007, Time attributes of stratigraphy surfaces, analyzed in the structural and Wheeler transfrom
domain: 69th EAGE Conference and Exhibition.
Gupta, R., T. Cheret, F. Pauget, and S. Lacaze, 2008, Automated
geomodelling: a Nigeria case study: 70th EAGE Conference and
Lightenberg, H. J., G. de Bruin, N. Hemstra, and C. Geel, 2006,
Sequence stratigraphic interpretation in the wheeler transformed
(flattened) seismic domain: 68th EAGE Conference and Exhibition.
Lomask, J., and A. Guitton, 2007, Volumetric flattening: an interpretation tool: The Leading Edge, 26, no. 7, 888897,
Pauget, F., S. Lacaze, and T. Valding, 2009, A global interpretation
based on cost function minimization: 79th Annual International
Meeting, SEG, Expanded Abstracts, 2592-96.
Stark, T. J., 2004, Relative geologic time (age) volumes Relating every seismic sample to a geologically reasonable horizon: The Leading Edge, 23, no. 9, 928932, doi:10.1190/1.1803505.
Verney, P., M. Perrin, M. Thonnat, and J. F. Rainaud, 2008, An approach of seismic interpretation based on cognitive vision: 70th
EAGE Conference and Exhibition.

Acknowledgments: The authors thank BG Assets for their permission to publish their data. Sequence Stratigraphic Interpretation
System is a trademark of dGB. PaleoScan is a trademark of Eliis.
Extrema and Ant Tracking are marks of Schlumberger. Seisnetics is
a trademark of (get from author).
Corresponding author:

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