Monday, November 5, 2012

Accretionary Wedge #52: Dream College Courses - The Dream of Cross-Disciplinary Integration for Subsea

Wow, time flies by almost as quickly as my children seem to be growing up. Yikes! My last post was well over a year ago. I guess that's what happens when life keeps you busy! Today I'm home with a sick little one, so as she is resting I have a little time to catch up on things long neglected.

I saw the invitation for the Accretionary Wedge #52 call for posts, via @shcwright's Vi-Carius Geology Blog. Interesting that Shawn is hosting this month's wedge with this particular topic, as I hail from the same alma mater - UH - and just learned this morning via the @geologydotcom news feed that the University of Houston will be offering a subsea engineering graduate degree and post-baccalaureate certification program in the Fall of next year (2013). The timing for this topic could not be more suitable for my participation.

Offshore explorationists rely heavily on the support of subsea engineering teams to create the solutions to retrieve, preserve, and transport the prized finds of oil, gas, and other sought-after minerals that lie under the ocean floor. It's one thing to find where these precious minerals might be hiding out, it's a whole other issue to make the extraction and transportation of product something that is economically feasible. The geologic processes that shape our ocean floors and control the sedimentation rates and depositional environments are extremely important for subsea development planning. However, the geology is something that can sometimes get lost in some engineering firms who don't understand it or believe that the concerns are outside of their scope. I cringe when I learn that entire field layout concepts may have been designed on a blank white piece of paper, without even a reference to even the coarsest bathymetric contours or general review of the regional geologic setting.

That's where I come in. Sometimes referred to as a Geohazards Specialist, I focus my effort on understanding an area's geologic setting, past and present active processes (as an indicator of potential future processes), and then work with specialists to help quantify potential constraints to development. Responsibilities include geophysical and geotechnical survey design, acquisition and interpretation, 3D and GIS visualization, fault characterization, slope stability analyses, and soils distribution analyses. These are things that consume my work week, month after month. My work is critical for siting subsea structures in areas where potential hazards can be avoided or at least minimized, and where installation and operation activities will be feasible. I provide input such that engineering design is appropriate and if mitigation efforts are needed they can be properly planned.

I work with subsea engineers regularly, interfacing with pipeline design, flow assurance, controls experts, materials and corrosion specialists, subsea hardware and foundation design teams. So, the announcement of the subsea engineering program at UH strikes a chord with me. Not only do I recognize the need for more trained individuals in this field, but I see the local program as a source for potential future interns and co-workers to my company, mentorship opportunities, as well as potential for field trip and lecture collaborations.

So what would I envision as a dream course for UH? I would love to see a program focusing on the geologic considerations to subsea development as part of this new initiative for subsea engineering education. This would need to be a course focused on integrating disciplines. A course that differentiates the different structures that might be installed and their sensitivities. How do factors like seafloor gradient, soils variability or unit thickness impact siting, development options, or foundation design? When is it appropriate to use a suction caisson instead of a driven pile? This would be a course that walks through the various "hazards" or constraints and elaborates on why they constrain, what implications they have on engineering, and what mitigation efforts can be taken. Why should we look at the safety factor of a slope or understand the types of faults, their kinematics, and their activity? The course would provide an introduction to the geophysical and geotechnical inputs and data quality requirements. What types of surveys should be done, what information can be gleaned from the different data sets, and how might the physical handling of soil samples affect laboratory results? The course would walk through basic routing and siting techniques and tools. This is a GIS and how it can help your analyses and data management throughout the development process. The curriculum could also include a segment on regional constraints. For instance, discussion on regulatory requirements that vary across different regions, and implications of design and analysis that result from using various standards and design codes. What constraints are present in the frozen arctic, versus the muddy and salt-tectonic dominated structures of the Gulf of Mexico, versus the seismically active Cypriot Arc or East African Rift, or the textbook examples of massive slope instabilities like the Storegga Slide in the North Sea. Perhaps the course could even incorporate some discussion on corporate cultures regarding risk management. This kind of course could be beneficial to both engineering and geoscience students and professionals and is presently noticeably lacking in the university programs. Maybe it would need to be a multi-course program, in order to cover all the topics sufficiently. That's where I turn it over to get other ideas to sort out the details.

Of course, if a program like that existed I may find myself in greater competition for work. I don't think that would be a bad thing...pushing all of us to be at the top of our game. At the same time, if there were more people who did what I did then my department would be a lot bigger and I'd have a greater potential to delegate work and load balance, which could actually lead to improved long-term work/life balance (if such a thing even exists).  Competing firms could also potentially benefit from the skilled workforce, which would yield more options for services in a capitalistic economy. I believe the overall end-result would be positive for the industry, positive for the professions of engineers and geologists who can successfully integrate, and positive for UH as an education leader.