The Eastern Newfoundland offshore region has experienced a resurgence in exploration activity over recent years, spurred on by several significant petroleum discoveries in the Flemish Pass Basin, northeast and along geological trend from the world-class deposits in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin. In 2012 and 2013, PGS, TGS, and Nalcor Energy undertook a large-scale multi-client survey to acquire a network of regional long offset 2D seismic reflection and gravity profiles (22,500 km) across the East Orphan Basin, Flemish Pass Basin and Flemish Cap. The survey was designed to provide regularly sampled regional coverage over an area that experienced multiple rifting episodes with multiple orientations as part of the opening of the modern North Atlantic Ocean during the Mesozoic. Seismic interpretation was done to identify rift and post-rift sequences within the thick sedimentary basins and map their areal extent. To aid in the seismic interpretation of the top of basement beneath these megasequences, 2D forward modelling of the coincident gravity data was undertaken using the interpreted boundaries of these megasequence packages as constraints. Insights obtained from the gravity modelling were subsequently used to update the seismic interpretation. The use of these complementary geophysical datasets with an iterative approach was designed to provide greater confidence in the final seismic interpretation but also allowed for crustal-scale constraints to be generated to improve the broader tectonic understanding of the region.

Study area

The East Orphan Basin lies at the northeastern edge of thinned continental crust of the Newfoundland and Labrador margin, immediately to the northwest of the Flemish Cap (Figure 1). The basin was formed and subsequently reactivated during three main rifting episodes that occurred during the Triassic, the Late Jurassic to Early Cretaceous, and the Late Cretaceous. These rifting episodes were oriented roughly NW–SE, W–E, and SW–NE, respectively, resulting in complex faulting within the basin. The sediments of the Orphan Basin overlie basement terranes that were stitched together during the closing of the Iapetus Ocean during the Caledonian-Appalachian orogeny in Paleozoic time. The original Mesozoic opening of the basin occurred along the pre-existing basement structures and tectonic fabrics from the Caledonian-Appalachian orogeny (Shannon, 1991).

Fig. 01
Figure 1. Bathymetric map of offshore Newfoundland and Labrador. The broad outline of the seismic and gravity survey is shown in yellow. The thick red lines show the main orientations of seismic reflection and gravity data profiles. Abbreviations: EOB – East Orphan Basin, FC – Flemish Cap, FPB – Flemish Pass Basin, GB – Grand Banks, NL – Newfoundland and Labrador, OK – Orphan Knoll, WOB – West Orphan Basin.

Seismic reflection surveying for petroleum exploration has been ongoing in the Orphan Basin for several decades (Smee et al. 2003). Meanwhile, targeted deeper crustal-scale seismic reflection studies have been limited to those from the Geological Survey of Canada’s Frontier Geoscience Program (FGP), specifically profiles 84-3 and 87-4 (Keen et al. 1987; Keen & de Voogd 1988; Welford et al. 2010). Profile 84-3 transected the West Orphan Basin and extended SW– NE from the Grand Banks, across the West Orphan Basin to beyond Orphan Knoll, an isolated continental fragment lying inboard of the continent–ocean boundary (Keen et al. 1987; Keen & de Voogd 1988). Subsequently, coincident wide-angle seismic reflection/ refraction surveying was conducted along this same profile and revealed that the Orphan Basin is underlain by stretched continental crust extending more than 400 km to Orphan Knoll (Chian et al. 2001).

Data acquisition

Regional long offset 2D seismic reflection and gravity profiles were acquired by PGS, TGS, and Nalcor Energy in 2012 and 2013. A total of 57 lines were acquired resulting in a total coverage of 22,500 km. Lines were oriented either NW–SE or SW–NE and varied in length from 115 to 719 km. In addition to a number of sparsely distributed regional lines, a dense concentration of seismic and gravity lines was focused on the East Orphan Basin and the Flemish Pass Basin. TGS performed the seismic reflection data processing in time and also performed the Bouguer correction of the acquired gravity data (Figure 2).

Fig. 02
Figure 2. Bouguer gravity anomaly data interpolated across all the 2D profiles. The broad outline of the seismic and gravity survey is shown in yellow. The East Orphan Basin is highlighted with the dashed turquoise oval. Abbreviations are defined in the caption for Figure 1.

Seismic interpretation

Interpretation of the processed time sections from the seismic reflection survey was undertaken at Nalcor Energy with the goal of identifying the main boundaries that subdivided the large sedimentary basins into rift and post-rift megasequences. These boundaries corresponded to the top of basement and the top of the Cretaceous sediments. While the Base Cenozoic is easily interpreted on the seismic sections, interpreting the top of basement was complicated by the complexity of the imaged rifted structures as well as the poorer data quality at depth. Gravity modelling was thus undertaken to reduce uncertainty in the seismic basement pick.

Gravity modelling

The Bouguer gravity data over the survey area (Figure 2) generally show a regional distinction between the mildly positive gravity anomalies of the Grand Banks, Flemish Cap and Orphan Basin, and the stronger positive anomalies associated with oceanic crust of the North Atlantic Ocean. One exception to this trend lies in the East Orphan Basin where the higher positive gravity anomalies appear to extend further landward. This localized pocket of anomalously high gravity anomalies suggests the presence of an extra source of mass in the East Orphan Basin relative to the rest of Orphan Basin.

In order to construct density models based on the time processed seismic reflection sections, the interpreted time horizons were converted to depth using constant velocities for each megasequence. The velocities used in the depth conversion were 1450, 2500, and 2700 m/s for the seawater, the post-rift sequence, and the rift sequence, respectively. Once the depth of the boundaries had been determined, density models were constructed using constant densities of 2200, 2500, 2700, 2870, and 3300 kg/m3 for the seawater, post-rift sequence, rift sequence, crust, and mantle, respectively. These densities were obtained using the velocity to density conversion equation presented by Ludwig et al. (1970). As the Bouguer data were used for the modelling, the seawater density corresponded to the reference density of 2200 kg/m3 used for the Bouguer correction by TGS. A constant density of 2870 kg/m3 was assigned to the entire crust for lack of available regional density constraints. While this density assignment represents a necessary oversimplification, it is sufficient for obtaining first-order constraints on the geometry of the base of the crust.

The gravity modelling was undertaken using the GM-SYS Profile Modelling software from GeoSoft Inc. Preliminary gravity modelling was done assuming that all of the interpreted sedimentary horizons were correct and that the depth conversion placed the boundaries at their true depth. The Moho, or base of the crust, was the only part of the model that was adjusted in order to fit the gravity observations. Suspect regions were flagged wherever the crust was effectively pinched out or where no adequate fit could be achieved without altering the sedimentary interpretation. For these regions, the seismic interpretation was re-examined and, if geologically reasonable and consistent with the seismic data, adjusted to better agree with the gravity data. The density models were then updated to reflect the new seismic interpretation. Through several iterations of seismic interpretation and gravity modelling, final density models were developed for all of the seismic lines in the survey (example shown in Figure 3).

Fig. 03
Figure 3. Density model (bottom) based on the seismic interpretation of key stratigraphic boundaries on a NW–SE oriented survey profile, with corresponding observed and calculated Bouguer gravity anomalies (above). To highlight the need for pinching out the crust, an alternative Moho was picked for comparison and the resulting calculated anomalies are plotted with the dashed lines.

The individual final density models provide basement and Moho depth constraints across the study area. These constraints are consistent with the observed gravity and with the seismic reflection sections. In many instances, the density models revealed Moho depths that were consistent with coherent reflections on the depth converted seismic sections (Figure 4). Without the gravity modelling, these coherent reflections could have been erroneously interpreted as sedimentary or crustal structures when they likely correspond to the base of the crust.

Fig. 04
Figure 4. Interpreted boundaries from the density model overlain on the depthconverted seismic reflection section of a NW–SE oriented survey profile (B), with corresponding observed and calculated Bouguer gravity anomalies (A). A portion of the seismic section is enlarged and stretched in (C) to highlight coherent reflectivity in proximity to the gravity-modelled Moho boundary.

Crustal thickness

Once the depth to basement was sufficiently constrained using the seismic reflection data and the gravity modelling, the modelled base of the crust was combined with the depth to basement in order to determine the crustal thickness across the survey area. The resulting crustal thickness map (Figure 5) reveals that Flemish Cap is on the order of 25 to 30 km thick while the Orphan Basin shows greater variability, with a thicker spine of 12 to 15 km thick crust dividing the West and East Orphan Basins, which are each less than 10 km thick.

Along many seismic lines across the East Orphan Basin, despite shallowing the basement as much as possible to allow for more high densities from the crust to contribute to gravity highs, the Moho also had to be brought up to a shallower depth to provide enough mass from the mantle into the model to satisfy the gravity observations where an anomalous positive gravity high is observed (Figures 2 and 3). Toward the northeast limit of the East Orphan Basin, several of the profiles even required two zones of mantle upwelling to reproduce the observed gravity anomalies.

By combining the modeled results from all of the individual density models, zones of hyper-extended continental crust were identified and correlated across multiple seismic lines, revealing extensive zones of hyper-extended continental crust in the East Orphan Basin (Figure 5). Such zones had been previously postulated based on derived crustal stretching values, beta, from regional constrained 3D gravity inversion work over the same area using satellite gravity data (Welford et al., 2012; Figure 6). These zones of hyper-extended crust correspond with beta values greater than 3.5, the threshold above which embrittlement of the entire crust can occur and faults can extend through the crust and lead to the serpentinization of the mantle, according to numerical modelling studies (Pérez-Gussinyé & Reston 2001; Pérez-Gussinyé et al. 2003). To date, the limited seismic refraction profiling conducted in the Orphan Basin has not revealed evidence of mantle velocities consistent with serpentinized mantle (Chian et al., 2001) but the zones of hyper-extended crust from this study have not yet been investigated using seismic refraction techniques.

Fig. 05
Figure 5. Crustal thickness derived from the seismically-interpreted basement and gravity-modelled Moho boundaries. The broad outline of the seismic and gravity survey is shown in yellow. The East Orphan Basin is highlighted with the dashed red oval. The small red circles correspond to Cretaceous fans inferred from AVO anomalies in the seismic reflection data. Abbreviations are defined in the caption for Figure 1.

The map of crustal thicknesses derived from the individual 2D forward modeled gravity lines shows a zone of hyper-extended continental crust running along the axis of the East Orphan Basin that branches into two zones toward the northeast (Figure 5). These zones and their branching character show a remarkable correlation with the locations of Cretaceous fans identified on the basis of AVO anomalies in the newly acquired seismic reflection data. These fans tend to align themselves with the northwestern limit of the hyper-extended zones and even line up with the northwestern limits of the two branches of hyper-extended crust to the northeast. This apparent spatial link between the hyper-extension of the continental crust in the East Orphan Basin and the local emplacement of Cretaceous fans may indicate that tectonics were the dominant influence on sediment deposition during this stage of rifting (Prosser, 1993). The orientation of the hyper-extended zone within the East Orphan Basin also follows the Caledonian-Appalachian orogenic trend, which may indicate that inheritance played a role in intensely focusing hyper-extension in this area (Manatschal et al., 2015).

Fig. 06
Figure 6. Map of crustal stretching factors, beta, from a regional constrained 3D gravity inversion (Welford et al., 2012). Dashed grey and white contours correspond to meaningful beta thresholds for the presence of polyphase faulting (Reston, 2007) and the possibility of embrittlement of the whole crust (Pérez- Gussinyé & Reston 2001; Pérez-Gussinyé et al. 2003), respectively. The broad outline of the seismic and gravity survey from this study is shown in yellow. The East Orphan Basin is highlighted with the dashed turquoise oval. The small red circles correspond to Cretaceous fans inferred from AVO anomalies in the seismic reflection data. Abbreviations are defined in the caption for Figure 1.


Zones of hyper-extended continental crust have been identified across the East Orphan Basin using an iterative approach of seismic interpretation and 2D forward gravity modelling. The main zone of hyper-extension follows the axis of the East Orphan Basin and branches into two zones toward the northeast. The northwestern limits of these core and branched zones line up with Cretaceous fans identified on the basis of AVO anomalies, suggesting a strong tectonic influence on sediment deposition during rifting.

This study demonstrates the importance of combining seismic interpretation with gravity modelling in order to increase confidence in the seismic interpretation and ensure that the derived Earth models are consistent with all of the available geophysical information. Without the use of the gravity modelling in the East Orphan Basin, many deep reflectors that we can now recognize as crustal or from the Moho, could have been erroneously attributed to sedimentary structures. A broader understanding of the crustal implications of the seismic interpretation of sedimentary basins can provide greater insight into the tectonic and thermal evolution of a basin or an entire margin.



We would like to thank TGS and PGS for permission to show portions of the seismic reflection data.


About the Author(s)

J. Kim Welford is currently the Manager of Petroleum Geoscience (Geophysics) for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. She is an applied seismologist with a strong geological background and extensive experience in potential field methods. Her research has been focused on using controlled-source seismic methods (2-D, 3-D, land, marine, reflection/ refraction) to investigate lithospheric scale projects down to shallow studies related to resources. Her seismic expertise is primarily focused on processing, modelling, and interpretation, and she has undertaken crustal and basinal scale 2-D forward modelling and 3-D gravity inversion. For the past ten years, her research has been focused on characterizing the deep structure of the rifted continental margins of the modern North Atlantic Ocean. She holds a B.Sc. in Planetary Sciences from McGill University in Montreal (1997) and both an M. Sc. (2000) and a Ph.D. (2004) in geophysics/ seismology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Deric Cameron began his career in gravity and magnetic acquisition in Northern Labrador with Excel Geophysical Inc., after graduating from Memorial University of Newfoundland with a BSc in Geophysics in ‘96. From there he moved into seismic data processing of foothills data with CGG and Arcis, before moving to the exploration plays in the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin and foothills of Alberta and BC with Devon. He later began working on the deep Devonian and carbonate reefs of NEBC with Petro-Canada, during his time with Devon and Petro-Canada he pursued his MSc from the University of Calgary, graduating in 2007. After graduating, he moved onto development and exploration projects with Petro Canada based on the East Coast of Canada, and then onto his current role of east coast exploration at Nalcor Energy. Deric has over 19 years of experience with a background in gravity and magnetics, seismic processing and advanced interpretation of stratigraphic and structural plays, both on shore and off shore.

Deric is a member of the CSEG, SEG and the EAGE and is a registered Professional Geoscientist in Newfoundland and Labrador (PEGNL).

James Carter received an M.S. in earth sciences from Memorial University of Newfoundland. Next, he started his career working on exploration projects in the Western Canada Sedimentary Basin, before moving into offshore Eastern Canada development with Petro-Canada. Then, he worked in exploration and development roles with Husky Energy on the White Rose field in Eastern Canada, and the Liwan field in the South China Sea. He has approximately 15 years of petroleum industry experience with a background in regional mapping, development operations, reservoir characterization, structural geology, and stratigraphy. He is geologic lead of a team responsible for interpretation and regional assessment of the Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore, with focus on derisking underexplored regions through technical interpretation and new data acquisition.

Richard Wright joined Nalcor Energy – Oil and Gas in 2009 and presently holds the position of Exploration Manager. His team is responsible for Nalcor’s exploration strategy to delineate Newfoundland and Labrador’s frontier basins to assess the province’s oil and gas potential. Before joining Nalcor, Richard worked in the frontier exploration team for Chevron. Prior to Chevron, Richard worked at a geophysical consulting firm in Orange County, California where he worked on a number of exploration and development projects in basins located in California, South America, North Sea, Middle East, West Africa, and Offshore Australia. Richard attended Memorial University of Newfoundland where he attained a Bachelor of Science (Hons) and a Ph.D. in Geophysics with a thesis evaluating 4D seismic at the Hibernia oil field.


Chian, D., Reid, I.D., and Jackson, H.R. 2001. Crustal structure beneath Orphan Basin and implications for nonvolcanic continental rifting. Journal of Geophysical Research, 106, 10923–10940.

Keen, C.E. and de Voogd, B. 1988. The continent–ocean boundary at the rifted margin of eastern Canada: new results from deep seismic reflection studies. Tectonics, 7, 107–124.

Keen, C.E., Stockmal, G.S., Welsink, H., Quinlan, G., and Mudford, B. 1987. Deep crustal structure and evolution of the rifted margin northeast of Newfoundland: results from Lithoprobe East. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, 24, 1537–1549.

Ludwig, W., Nafe, J., and Drake, C., 1970. Seismic refraction, in the sea, in New Concepts of Sea Floor Evolution, Part I, 4, pp. 5–84, ed. Maxwell, A., Wiley-Intersci.

Manatschal, G., Lavier, L., and Chenin, P., 2015. The role of inheritance in structuring hyperextended rift systems: some considerations based on observations and numerical modeling. Gondwana Research, 27, 140-164.

Pérez-Gussinyé, M. and Reston, T.J. 2001. Rheological evolution during extension at nonvolcanic rifted margins: onset of serpentinization and development of detachments leading to continental breakup. Journal of Geophysical Research, 106, 3961–3975.

Pérez-Gussinyé, M., Ranero, C.R., Reston, T.J., and Sawyer, D. 2003. Mechanisms of extension at nonvolcanic margins: evidence from the Galicia interior basin, west of Iberia. Journal of Geophysical Research, 108, B5, doi:10.1029/2001JB000901.

Prosser, S. 1993. Rift-related linked depositional systems and their seismic expression. Geological Society of London, Special Publication, 71, 35-66.

Reston, T.J. 2007. Extension discrepancy of North Atlantic nonvolcanic rifted margin: depthdependent stretching or unrecognized faulting? Geology, 35, 367–370.

Shannon, P.M. 1991. The development of Irish offshore sedimentary basins. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 148, 181–189.

Smee, J., Nader, S., Einarsson, P., Hached, R., and Enachescu, M. 2003. Orphan Basin, offshore Newfoundland: new seismic data and hydrocarbon plays for a dormant Frontier Basin. Joint CSPG/ CSEG National Convention, Conference. World Wide Web address:

Welford, J.K., Hall, J., Srivastava, S.P., and Sibuet, J.-C. 2010. Structure across the northeastern margin of Flemish Cap, offshore Newfoundland from Erable multichannel seismic reflection profiles: evidence for a transtensional rifting environment. Geophysical Journal International, 183, 572–586.

Welford, J.K., Shannon, P.M., O’Reilly, B.M., and Hall, J. 2012. Comparison of lithosphere structure across the Orphan Basin–Flemish Cap and Irish Atlantic conjugate continental margins from constrained 3D gravity inversions. Journal of the Geological Society of London, 169, 405–420.


Join the Conversation

Interested in starting, or contributing to a conversation about an article or issue of the RECORDER? Join our CSEG LinkedIn Group.

Share This Article