Bally, Albert W. (earth scientist)


(1925- ) Dutch Petroleum Geologist, Structural Geologist

Albert Bally has had great success both in the petroleum industry and in translating those successes into scholarly works in academia. Although there are many other geologists who have made similar industry-academic connections, none have been as effective as Bally. Perhaps the best example of this duality was his 1975 paper entitled “A Geodynamic Scenario for Hydrocarbon Occurrences.” It is a worldwide look at types of sedimentary basins, and explains the dynamics of the hydrocarbon-bearing basins using the theory of plate tectonics. Two updated versions of this paper were published in 1980. Also during this time, Bally was an author on the Stratigraphic Atlas of North and Central America, which includes a series of maps that detail the origin of sedimentary materials and the paleogeography of North and Central America.

One of his best-known areas of research was released in a now classic 1966 paper which showed that deformation in the Canadian Rocky Mountain fold and thrust belt only involved the sedimentary strata of the cover sequence over a relatively undeformed crystalline basement. This deformation is termed “thin-skinned” and it is analogous to a rug (sedimentary cover) sliding on a wood floor (crystalline basement). It quantitatively describes the great amount of thrusting that took place and its effect on lithospheric processes. Many of the important concepts he discovered in this paper were influential in future papers, such as his extraordinary work in the Melville Islands, Canada, fold and thrust belt and his development of the concept of the orogenic float. This process involves the sideways thrust faulting of rock sheets parallel to synchronous strike-slip faults.

During his career Albert Bally did extensive work on the geology of the Gulf of Mexico. He proposed that the Gulf province was the type example of a passive margin that experienced complex stratigraphic and structural deformation primarily due to gravitational instabilities. Even though common and extensive listric (shallowing dip with depth) normal faulting and its effects on sedimentation were known for a long time, the movement of salt into deformational features was not recognized until the late 1970s. Salt domes are the locations of the largest petroleum deposits in the Gulf Coast. He extended this work on halokinesis (salt tectonics) to other areas as well. Bally showed how the importance of al-lochthonous salt located in a fold and thrust belt can explain certain complex structural relationships in the Betic Cordillera of Spain.

Bert Bally on a field trip in California in 1984

Bert Bally on a field trip in California in 1984

Much of Bally’s work involves the integration of seismic reflection profiling (like a sonogram of the Earth) with structural and stratigraphic observations and principles. With his access to the excellent industry seismic reflection data, he was able to document these sedimentary-deforma-tional processes well ahead of the rest of the profession. Through an impressive feat of negotiation, Bally was able to publish some of this very expensive proprietary data in a series of atlases that are unparalleled in the field. Through this work, he established himself as one of the world’s foremost experts on seismic stratigraphy and seismic interpretation. As a result of this expertise he led the way to a major national seismic profiling research project on the continental shelves called the EDGE project.

Albert Bally was born in The Hague, Netherlands, on April 21, 1925. He became interested in geology as a boy exploring the volcanoes and foothills around Rome, Italy. He attended high school in Switzerland and upon graduation continued his education at the University of Zurich, where he earned a bachelor of science and a Ph.D. (1925), both in geology. Upon graduation, Bally accepted a post-doctoral fellowship at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory of Columbia University, New York, where he remained for one year. In 1954, Bally was offered a position with Shell Oil Company where he remained until he retired in 1981. He began with Shell Canada in Alberta where he explored for prospects in the Rocky Mountain overthrust belt. He moved to Houston, Texas, in 1966 as a manager of Geological Research at the Shell Bellaire Research and Development Laboratory. In 1968, he became the chief geologist for the U.S. Division of Shell Oil and was appointed exploration consultant in 1976, and senior exploration consultant in 1980. Upon retirement from Shell, he accepted the position of Harry Carothers Weiss Professor of geology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he remains today. He was initially appointed department chair at Rice as well.

Albert Bally has led a dual career with impressive productivity in each regard. He produced numerous reports on his exploration and research at Shell Oil, as well as numerous scholarly publications, both at Shell and in his academic role. Many of these papers and reports are true classics in the structural, stratigraphic, and plate tectonic processes primarily as they relate to hydrocarbon accumulation. In recognition of his contributions to geology, Albert Bally has received numerous honors and awards. He was the recipient of the Career Contribution Award for the Structural Geology and Tectonics Division of the Geological Society of America for 1998, the Sidney Powers Medal from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the William Smith Medal from the Geological Society of London, and the Gustav Steinmann Medal from the Geologische Vereinigung of Germany.

Bally also contributed to geology in terms of service to the profession. He served as Centennial President of the Geological Society of America in 1988 in addition to councilor and numerous other roles. In his role as president, he initiated the famous Decade of North American Geology (DNAG) project. He was also very active with the American Association of Petroleum Geologists and served roles for the National Academy of Sciences as well.

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