Oman Recon

I’ve mentioned before that our newly established College within the University is a combination of previously existing departments and a research entity on campus. For example, the Geosciences Department has been at KFUPM since 1973. The College of Petroleum Engineering and Geosciences (CPG) has melded the departments of Petroleum Engineering with Geosciences, of course, and also includes a research arm, the Center for Integrative Petroleum Research. New Bachelor’s-level curricular programs in geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering were developed and codified during 2017.

With a focus on integration of these three disciplines, CPG students enroll in an identical freshman-year course sequence, culminating in a summer-long course known as CPG 199 Summer Camp. In this course, all the post-freshmen are together for eight weeks in the summer. We’ll have right around 60 students for summer 2018. Lucky me, I’m coordinating the course. We are splitting the course into three segments, with one in the mountains of Oman for two weeks, another two weeks in southeastern Poland (working out of Krakow and in the adjoining Carpathian mountains), and the rest of the summer program will be in-Kingdom (mainly in conjunction with Saudi Aramco).

Since I’ll be leading the Oman and Poland legs, I went on a recon mission in late December to Oman with my colleague, Khalid, and also with the Dean of CPG. We’ve contracted an adventure company, Husaak Adventures, to run the trip. The intent of this first leg is for team building, camaraderie, cooperation, and self-confidence. That there is spectacular carbonate geology everywhere we go is definitely a plus, but studying geology, geophysics, and petroleum engineering is not the focus of this module. Of course, it will be extremely difficult to contain my excitement for the geology (and I think my students know this…).

The Sultanate of Oman is in the southeast of the Arabian peninsula, bounded by the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The areas that we’ll be principally located are in the eastern and western Al Hajar Mountains that prominently jut inland from along the northeastern margin of the Sultanate.


The Arabian peninsula with the Sultanate of Oman along the east-southeast.


A closer view showing the location of the Omani capital, Muscat, and the splay of the Al Hajar mountain range paralleling the coast of the Gulf of Oman. The dark “blobs” indicate locations of the Semail Ophiolite (see text).

Well, I won’t bore you with all the great details of Omani geology, but I need to mention a couple things. First, yes you can see that it’s quite arid (like most of the peninsula), but the SE Asian monsoon does bring moisture to Hajar Mountains. Vegetation grows in the wadis (intermittent river courses) draining the mountains. Second, abundant Cretaceous and Paleogene limestones that outcrop in the Oman mountains form important petroleum reservoirs in the subsurface of Oman, UAE, and Saudi Arabia (e.g., the prolific Thamama Group). And third, Oman hosts the famous (well, in geological circles anyway) Semail Ophiolite. During tectonic closing of ocean basins, in general, the denser ocean crust gets subducted below the more buoyant continental crust. In rare cases, however, slivers of the uppermost mantle and oceanic crust get thrust up onto the continents (obduction, rather than subduction). These pieces of former seafloor basalt that are obducted onto the continents are called ophiolites. Named for the town of Samail/Semail, the ultramafic (mantle) and mafic (seafloor basalts) rocks of the Semail Ophiolite are dark grey to black on fresh surface, and they weather slightly reddish brown (iron) upon exposure. The dark blobs in these Google Map images are (mostly) ophiolite successions.


Area of the western Hajar Mountains. The town of Nizwa is at the bottom of the photo, just to the east of two ophiolite sections. We’ll be camping, hiking, and canyoneering around Jebel Shams (the highest point in Oman, at just over 3000 m).

Our two and a half day field excursion covered basically all the areas that the students will be exposed to over the span of two weeks. So, there was a lot of “windshield time”, interspersed with quick field stops, overviews, short hikes, one long hike, and two nights camping in the cold, high mountains. The cooler temperatures afforded by the mountains will be welcome when we’re all camping out there during the summer, when lower-elevation temperatures will be in the 40s (°C) or low 100s (°F).

We’ll start our adventure touring in the western mountains, using a camping area near Jebel Shams (location in the image above). One of the activities that the group will do is a 8-12 hour round-trip hike to the summit of Jebel Shams, the highest point in Oman, at 3028 m (just under 10,000 ft).

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Dark ophiolite along the drive to the western Hajar Mountains.


These pillow basalts represent seafloor lava outpourings as new oceanic crust is created at the mid-ocean ridges (oceanic layer 2A), here exposed in the Semail Ophiolite. The distinct “pillow” at center-right is about a meter and a half wide.

The roads in Oman are quite good, but there’s no easy route to get to some of our locations. Husaak has new badass Land Cruisers that will get the job done. We scaled and descended some very steep routes and the vehicles were simply monsters.

Husaak’s Toyota Land Cruiser workhorses got it done!

The western Hajar Mountains have low-grade metamorphics as underburden, with thick stacked sequences of carbonates as a mantle. Steep-sided canyons descend from the high mountains, and date palms adorn the wadi floors. Streams appear and disappear. We have several mountain and canyon hikes for the students lined up.

Majestic peaks, valleys, and canyons of the western Hajar Mountains.

After five nights camping at the high Jebel Shams camp, the group will move to the town of Nizwa as a base for two nights. We have a geological excursion to Jebel Madar planned and there will be another day hike. However, while in Nizwa, we’ll have a chance to clean up and sleep in beds before heading to the eastern Hajar. Our plan is to stay at the Golden Tulip hotel, the same hotel I stayed in when I visited Oman for a post-AAPG field trip in 2002. The students (and faculty, and Husaak guides) will be happy.

Somehow, the Golden Tulip allowed this group of grubby guys to tour the facilities.

We swung the vehicles back toward Muscat and headed through the valley on the back side of Jebel Akhdar before turning into the eastern Hajar Mountains. Here, crazy dipslope Eocene nummulitic limestones plunge toward the Arabia Sea. Wadis follow obvious large-scale fracture/fault patterns that are perpendicular to the coast. We spent a fair amount of time in the Tiwi Wadi south of the town of Fins. Road winds up the wadi through dense date palm stands and small villages. All along the wadi, “plantations” of dates, mangos, and crops are terraced along the wadi walls.

After hiking down to the river in part of the wadi, discovering waterfalls, rapids, and limpid pools, we exited the wadi and made for camp by way of a steep climb up to the Salmah plateau. Again, elevation will be high enough in the summer time to have comfortable nighttime temperatures for camping. For us, the December time frame, lack of clouds, and the elevation made for some rather cold-weather camping. We slept under the stars and close to the campfire. We saw some shooting stars streaking across the sky, likely the last remnants of the Geminids meteor shower.

Not only is the plateau dissected by steep-sided wadis, but there is a complex network of caverns throughout this limestone terrane. Husaak is in the process of exploring and mapping the cave network. The size of some of the caves is simply remarkable – one cave entrance we saw was nearly 200 m high.


Google Earth image of the Salmah plateau area of the eastern Hajar Mountains. Narrow wadis dissect the Eocene limestone (full of large nummulites forams) because of dissolution and erosion coincident with a large-scale fracture/fault system.

Limestones of the eastern Hajar slope down to the azure waters of the Arabian Sea.

Waterfalls, emerald pools, and plantations make Wadi Tiwi a must-see destination in the eastern Hajar Mountains.


Early morning slumber on the Salmah plateau. No one was excited about climbing out of warm bags into the morning chill.


Entrance to an enormous cave atop the Salmah plateau requiring a 150 m rappel into the massive cave network below.


Ali, Khalid, and I with a cave entrance in the background. The cliffs here are several hundred meters high and a helicopter can easily fly into the cave entrance. Ali is founder and president of Husaak Adventures. A Colorado School of Mines petroleum engineering grad, he spent many years with major oil companies as a top engineer before turning to adventure tourism. And we’re glad he did!

Many thanks to Ali and his crew (especially Hassan and Bader) who helped us on this recon trip. We were well taken care of and we have full confidence in Husaak to deliver a memorable experience for our students in CPG 199. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about this upcoming summer…

Incidentally, you can follow Husaak Adventures on Instagram @husaak. Believe me, you’ll want to join their adventures.


Fieldwork in Spain

Fall semester just ended and, after too short a break, we’re back at it for spring semester. From my lack of updates, you may be able to guess just how busy last semester was. Never mind that, I’ll begin to post some updates worth noting and I’ll hope to not fall irrevocably behind.

First up is a report on fieldwork in southeastern Spain that we completed in late October. I was joined by two of my geology faculty colleagues and two of our stellar undergraduate students. We met colleagues in the field from University of Barcelona and University of Manchester. Without getting too geological, we had two subordinate objectives related to an overall project of relating outcrop exposures in Spain with those in the subsurface in Saudi Arabia. The successions are age-equivalent, Early Cretaceous (125-100 million years ago), and they both represent widespread limestone deposition. So, we’re using the Spanish outcrops as analogs to supergiant oilfields in the subsurface of the Kingdom, which we can only see and touch and sample from scattered cores. Geology by analogy is something we routinely do.

The first field area was located near the town of Aliaga (in Aragon), about a five-hour drive from Barcelona. We flew from Dammam to Dubai and then Dubai to Barcelona. It was my first time on an Airbus A380, the huge aircraft with two full levels. More on that later. After arrival and getting situated in the hotel and wandering around a bit, we met with our Spanish colleagues and enjoyed a traditional Catalan dinner of tapas and sumptuous main courses. And wine.


The Iberian Peninsula. The pin drop is on the town of Aliaga, west-southwest of Barcelona.


The Emirates A380. It’s a flying whale. Not sure how it gets off the ground.


Iberian ham, sardines, and wine. This was just a mid-afternoon snack at a street cafe in Barcelona.

The next morning, we began our drive to Aragon, stopping twice along the way. Once for coffee and pastries and once for an excellent family-style lunch at local “club” that was serving Sunday meals for the locals. We seriously just stumbled upon this place in a small town, and were welcomed and fed with great affection.


A statue honoring local agriculture in the small town we stopped in for lunch.


Our crew, about to dine alongside locals at the club’s dining hall.

Aliaga is a small town in the Aragon region of southeastern Spain. The area over the years was visited by and occupied by the Romans and, of course, the Moors. Our field accommodations was a lovely hotel that had once been the engineer’s quarters for the coal mines in the region. After coal mining had died out, about 40 years ago, the building was bought by our hosts and turned into a hotel.


A Google image of the lay of the land around the town of Aliaga. Hopefully, you can note the excellent outcrop exposures available for study.


The wild streets of downtown Aliaga.


A front view of our field accommodations (La Parra hotel).


And, yes, those are grape vines clinging to the lower walls.


External view of Our Lady of Zarza Sanctuary.


The cemetery grounds and crypts of Zarza Sanctuary. Deformed limestones in the background…


The inside of Zarza has been painstakingly restored by hand by a single individual over the past fifteen years. He allowed us entrance and told us all about the restoration.

The next couple of days were spent documenting diagenetic changes within sequence stratigraphic packages and sampling shelf-to-basin transitions that were nicely exposed throughout the field area (click on the photos to see the full-size images).

Field localities around Aliaga.

From Aliaga and Aragon, we made our way into Valencia in the vicinity of the Morella Castle (Castell de Morella). The castle can be seen from a long distance away, sitting on a strategic know elevated above the broad valley. While our focus was on the outcrops several kms away, the castle kept drawing us in. Finally finished in the field for the day, we drove to Morella and explored the town and the castle. Occupation and fortification of the high ground of Morella was again led by the Romans, followed by the Moors, and then the Europeans.


View of the Castell de Morella from just outside of town.


Many stairs were climbed to reach the top of the fortification.


A view to the west from the top rampart of the castle. The ridge to the center right was the focus of our fieldwork earlier in the day.

The last part of our project was to document and sample fault-controlled dolomitization in equivalent strata, but in a more tectonically active setting. Our base for this campaign was the Mediterranean resort town of Benicassim (terrible, right?!), and working on outcrops accessible through the town of Oropesa. As it was off season, we didn’t have to fight the crowds of people who frequent the beaches and towns of the area during the summer. The outcrops here are spectacular and, certainly from afar, it’s easy to tell what section of the ridges have experienced dolomitization (alteration from later fluid flow that produces the mineral dolomite).


Good exposures of our target strata from the town of Oropesa del Mar.


Setting off to sample rocks of this face. The light grey strata are original limestone, and the stratbound dark layers have experienced dolomitization. The controlling fault lies to the right of the photo by about a half kilometer. While it looks benign, the slopes are very steep and every bit of vegetation had nasty thorns – the last one came out of my knee just a couple weeks ago.

Views of the Mediterranean back toward Benicassim, the beach along the Benicassim waterfront, and oranges and olives in abundance.

After a couple days of seriously invigorating fieldwork in the area, we wrapped up the campaign and headed back to Barcelona, and the following day back to KSA through Dubai. We can’t thank our colleagues from University of Barcelona enough for our success on this trip. Their guidance in the field, their deep knowledge of the local geology, and their willingness to share and collaborate was simply incomparable.

We enjoyed a post-fieldwork tapas/seafood dinner and stayed overnight at a hotel on La Rambla, the site of the unfortunate terror attack a few months earlier. The next morning, before leaving for the airport, I took time to stroll Las Rambla and visit the incredible sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the adjoining Boqueria Market.

Street scene of La Rambla, and wondrous temptations of the Boqueria Market.

To top the trip off, I got an upgrade on Emirates to business class on the A380 flying whale. Emirates has quickly become my go-to airline for this part of the world. Dubai is a quick one-hour flight from Dammam, and from there (DXB) one can travel throughout the world.

International business class on Emirates is okay.