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Thomas R. LaFehr
Misac N. Nabighian

Wei Liu, managing editor

Edward K. Biegert and Michal Ruder, volume editors

The international society of applied geophysics

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ISBN 978-0-931830-56-3 (Series)

ISBN 978-1-56080-298-3 (Volume)

Society of Exploration Geophysicists

P. O. Box 702740
Tulsa, OK 74170-2740

© 2012 by Society of Exploration Geophysicists

All rights reserved. This book or parts hereof may not be reproduced in any
form without written permission from the publisher.

Published 2012
Printed in the United States of America

Cover figure courtesy of Guy Flanagan. Used by permission.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

LaFehr, Thomas R., 1934- author.

Fundamentals of gravity exploration / Thomas R. LaFehr, Misac N. Nabighian ; Wei Liu,
managing editor ; Edward K. Biegert and Michal Ruder, volume editors.
pages cm. -- (Geophysical monograph series ; no. 17)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-56080-298-3 (volume : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-931830-56-3 (series : alk.
1. Gravity--Measurement. I. Nabighian, Misac N., author. II. Liu, Wei, 1969- editor. III.
Biegert, Edward K., editor. IV. Ruder, Michal, editor. V. Title.
QB334.L34 2012
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Dedicated to our wives, Arlys LaFehr and Aida Nabighian

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About the Authors. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . viii

Preface. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xi
Acknowledgments. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . xiii

Chapter 1: Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1

Chapter 2: Principles of Attraction and Earth’s Gravity Field. . . . 5

Gravitational force. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Gravitational constant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
Gravitational potential. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
The earth’s gravity field. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
The geoid. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
The standard International Gravity Formula. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
GPS and the geoid. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12

Chapter 3: The Gravitational Potential and Attraction

of Mass Distributions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Attraction of a spherical shell . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Components of attraction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
Analysis of potential fields . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
Gravity calculations for simple geometries . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Gravity calculations for 2D geometries. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 34
The logarithmic potential. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43
Green’s equivalent layer and the problem of ambiguity . . . . . . . . . 44

Chapter 4: Field Measurements . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Absolute-gravity measurements. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49
Relative-gravity instruments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50

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Gravity gradiometry. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58
Field operations. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 61
Measurement uncertainty. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 64
Ambiguity related to survey design — Aliasing. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 65

Chapter 5: Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Typical near-surface rock densities. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67
Density and porosity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 70
Constituent densities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72
Methods for deriving, measuring, and evaluating density. . . . . . . . 72
Definition of what causes a gravity anomaly. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78

Chapter 6: Data Reduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81
Reduction of gravity survey data. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82
Appendix A — Bullard correction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98

Chapter 7: Anomaly Interpretation Guidelines

and Limitations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
Purposes of gravity surveys. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
Gravity calculations for an arbitrary model. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 102
The fast-Fourier transform for calculating gravity effects. . . . . . . . 105
Anomaly shape . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109
Anomaly separation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110
Spectral analysis . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118
Depth determination . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125
Determination of anomalous mass. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136
Interpretation of borehole gravity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 138
Reservoir monitoring. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 140
Appendix A — The unit half-width circle (2D)
and ellipse (3D). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 141
Appendix B — Application of Bott and Smith theorems . . . . . . . . 147
Appendix C — Corrections for incomplete integration
using Gauss’ theorem. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 150
Appendix D — Borehole-gravity distance/thickness
relationships . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152
Contents  vii
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Chapter 8: Inversion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157

Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157
Density inversion. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 158
Geometric (boundary) inversion . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 166

Chapter 9: Geologic Applications. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169

Introduction to interpretation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 169
Location of buried features by filtering and/or modeling . . . . . . . . 173
Example of salt with caprock. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 175
Examples of seismic pitfalls . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 177
Example of borehole gravity. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 180
Borehole gravity in combination with surface gravity. . . . . . . . . . . 181
Integration of seismic and/or magnetic information
with gravity data. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 182
Mining applications. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 183
Satellite gravity and satellite-derived gravity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 190

Appendix A: Fourier Transform. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 195

References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 199

Index. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 211
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About the Authors

Thomas R. LaFehr received an A.B.,

College of Letters and Science, from the
University of California (Berkeley) in 1958;
an M.Sc. in geophysics from Colorado School
of Mines in 1962 (while working at the U. S.
Geological Survey); and a Ph.D. in geo-
physics from Stanford University in 1964.
He was employed as a geophysicist by Grav-
ity Meter Exploration Company in Hous-
ton from 1964 to 1969. At CSM from 1969
through 1992, LaFehr was an associate,
adjunct, and full professor and George Brown
Professor, taking leaves of absence during
which he was founder, consultant to, president, and chairman of EDCON.
He was also founder, president, chairman, and consultant for LCT. Since
1998, he has been a Distinguished Senior Scientist at Colorado School of
LaFehr has published in Geophysics, the Journal of Geophysical Re-
search, the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, and the Austra-
lian Oil and Gas Journal. He won three awards for best presentation at the
SEG annual meeting, was the SEG distinguished lecturer in 1971 and editor
in 1972–1973, was elected to honorary membership in 1979, was president
in 1983–1984, and received the Maurice Ewing Medal in 1997.

About the Authors  ix
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Misac N. Nabighian received a B.Sc.

(honors) degree in geophysics in 1955 from
the Institute of Petrol and Gas in Bucharest,
Romania, and a Ph.D. in geophysics in 1967
from Columbia University in New York. He
began his career in Romania in 1955, first as
a party chief and then as an assistant profes-
sor at the Institute of Petrol and Gas. After
obtaining his Ph.D., he was employed by
Newmont Mining to carry out research and
develop new interpretation techniques in
various areas of mining geophysics. During
Nabighian’s tenure at Newmont, he devel-
oped, among others, the concept of the analytic signal for interpreting poten-
tial-field data and the “smoke-ring” concept to help interpret time-domain
electromagnetic methods. He retired from Newmont in 1997 and since then
has been a Distinguished Senior Scientist at Colorado School of Mines.
Nabighian is an honorary member of SEG and was the first recipient of
the Gerald Hohmann Award for excellence in electromagnetics. He was edi-
tor of the two-volume SEG publication Electromagnetic Methods in Applied
Geophysics and editor of the special issue of Geophysics devoted to time-
domain electromagnetic methods. He also served two terms as an associate
editor of Geophysics.
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“Knowledge of the gravity field of the earth is important in the study

of our globe,” wrote W. Heiskanen and F. A. Vening Meinesz in 1958. We
would add that such knowledge is also very important in the study of local
earth features found in mining, petroleum, environmental, and other explo-
ration venues. This book is intended to aid all earth scientists engaged in
such studies.
Where we describe and emphasize analytical techniques, we do so in the
firm conviction that in their understanding lies the basis for future economic
discoveries and that an understanding of the limitations of techniques is as
important as their applicability. As discussed in this book, a rich mathemati-
cal substance is the basis for clearer understanding and innovative explora-
tion tools, but equations do not replace geologic breadth and scope.
No better example of the use of mathematics can be found than the de-
scription of the problem of ambiguity, eloquently described by Green’s iden-
tities. This eloquence, however, would be lost without a thorough grounding
in the acceptable solutions in practical geologic terms.
We have tried separately to acknowledge the uncountable sources from
which this book is derived. Some of our sources, such as our early teachers
and colleagues, living and gone, contributed to the framework with which
we view gravity methods and to our appreciation for their limitations.
Although many such sources will remain unknown to our readers, everyone
can appreciate the concept of community synergism and multiple collabora-
tions. We would therefore like to express our thanks to all those who have
been involved in our small but dynamic discipline.

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Most of the material in this book is based on courses taught by both

authors at various times in the Geophysics Department, Colorado School
of Mines (CSM). We felt that a proper balance in presenting the gravity
method can be achieved by combining one author’s experience in the petro-
leum industry (TRL) with the other’s experience in the mining industry
(MNN). The final format of the book, however, was strongly influenced
by the excellent technical editing provided by Ed Biegert from Shell E&P
Technologies and Michal Ruder from Wintermoon Geotechnologies. We are
both extremely grateful for their patience and excellent suggestions and for
providing additional technical material when needed.
We are also indebted to Guy Flanagan of ConocoPhillips, who provided
the satellite gravity data and helped in writing the description of the tech-
nique. The chapter on inversion could not have been written without the
help of Yaoguo Li from CSM, who patiently guided us in streamlining this
important chapter. Mike Thomas from the Geological Survey of Canada,
Jeremy Cook from Newmont, and Jules Lajoie from Comtek Enterprises
Ltd. helped in obtaining some data related to mining applications. Camriel
Coleman, a student at CSM, helped in imaging the Heath Steele Stratmat
magnetic data, and Dionisio Uendro Carlos from Vale Mining Company
helped with sketching an important figure. Mark Ander from Ander Lab-
oratory LLC provided valuable information on various aspects of gravity
Ed Biegert suggested the inclusion of various summarizing tables in
Chapter 3, and they were modeled after similar tables in the Russian gravity
handbook Gravirazvedka. Some material was extracted, sometimes verba-
tim, from the authors’ paper “Historical development of the gravity method
in exploration” (Nabighian et al., 2005), and as such, special thanks are due
to the other authors of that publication: Mark Ander, Tien Grauch, Richard
Hansen (deceased), Yaoguo Li, William Pearson, John Peirce, Jeff Phillips,
and Michal Ruder. The authors also acknowledge the contributions from
their cumulative experiences at GMX, EDCON, and LCT (TRL) and New-
mont Mining Co. (MNN).

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We also thank Ted Bakamjian, Jennifer Cobb, and the rest of the SEG
gang, our longtime friend, Jerry Henry, and our newfound buddy, Rowena
Mills, who ably performed as special editors.
Some of the material in this book is based on innumerable presentations
under the auspices of SEG and AAPG.
Finally, we would be remiss if we failed to acknowledge the enduring
support of our wives, Arlys and Aida, to whom this book is dedicated.
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Chapter 1


The goal of this book is to provide information about the principles,

understanding, and applicability of the gravity exploration method. This
book is intended to be suitable for classroom instruction and as a refer-
ence for anyone engaged in geophysical exploration, including those whose
specialties might be in another discipline but who would benefit from an
understanding of how gravity exploration can help them solve exploration
problems. For many decades, the 1971 SEG book by L. L. Nettleton (Geo-
physical Monograph Series No. 1, Elementary Gravity and Magnetics for
Geologists and Seismologists) has helped to fill this need, but it is limited
in scope (as its title implies) and is, of course, out of date, especially with
respect to modern exploration technology. This little book has been a best
seller, however, and it resides in the libraries of thousands of geologists and
geophysicists. It contains several classical and practical examples of how
the gravity method can be applied, and we have borrowed liberally from
these where they retain their long-held value. In 1995, Richard J. Blakely
published Potential Theory in Gravity and Magnetic Applications. This
book covers in depth much of which the Nettleton monograph lacks: the
principles of potential theory and the mathematical basis for the forward and
inverse techniques of interpretation.
Our book is intended to fill a need that is oriented more toward explo-
ration than the Nettleton monograph or the Blakely book, with more infor-
mation about the underlying principles and technology than the former
and clearer orientation toward the explorationist’s geologic goals than the
We expect that a relatively small minority of our readers will have an
interest in the mathematical basis that underlies the fundamentals of the
gravity method presented in this book. Readers who are in this minority,

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however, require the mathematics. The majority of readers will have no

direct interest in the mathematics that underlie the gravity method. Nev-
ertheless, they can obtain the basic meaning of the subject matter. Some
explorationists will wish to “read through” the mathematics on first encoun-
ter and then later, at their own pace, study the mathematical basis in depth.
We have not, however, included laborious or copious derivations showing
how solutions to integrals can be derived, relying instead on the excellent
tables of integrals available at most good libraries (e.g., Gradshteyn and
Ryzhik, 1980). The same solutions can also be obtained using modern com-
puter software, which continues to evolve into ever more useful algorithms.
An example of the seeming contradiction of “requiring the mathemat-
ics” without needing it to understand the subject matter is given in the last
section of Chapter 3 (Green’s equivalent layer and the problem of ambigu-
ity). Most readers will feel well justified in skipping over Green’s identities,
but they would miss an important basic element in gravity exploration if
they also chose to ignore the entire section or even the chapter. The impor-
tance of mathematics can be obtained by reading the text. In combination
with the illustrations, the description of the problem of ambiguity gives the
reader an important understanding of how the gravity method should and
should not be applied.
investigation into the existence and behavior of gravity has a long and
distinguished history, starting at least as far back as the famous experiments
of Galileo (1564–1642) in the sixteenth century. Born in the year that Gali-
leo died (1642), Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was the creator of what is now
called classical mechanics or Newtonian physics, which forms the basis for
a rich wealth of mathematics relevant to gravity fields and their potential.
about the time of the Copernican Revolution, when the field of astron-
omy started its journey toward a better understanding of planetary motion,
observers such as Johannes Kepler (1571–1630) laid the groundwork for
Newton and those who followed him. Pierre-Simon, Marquis de Laplace
(1749–1827), wrote his monumental Celestial Mechanics (starting in 1799)
in five volumes, thus creating a very early underpinning to modern gravity
exploration, which began very late in the eighteenth century.
Baron Loránd Eötvös (1848–1919), in addition to his extensive interest
in law and politics, was a pioneer in the embryonic beginnings of mod-
ern gravity exploration, principally by inventing the torsion balance. Much
of the first geophysical exploration work was performed near the Gulf of
Mexico, and the first oil discovery based on geophysics was at the Nash
Dome in Texas following a torsion-balance survey there in 1924.
This book contains nine chapters, starting with this introduction and
ending with geologic applications. To interpret a gravity anomaly in geologic
Chapter 1:  Introduction  3
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terms, we must first define it: the difference between the measured value and
the value predicted by a specific earth model. The nature of those measure-
ments, the details of the earth models, and the tools for examining the behav-
ior of gravity fields are the subject of this book. Generally, the specified earth
model (Chapter 6) is a simplification of the actual earth, and the resulting
anomaly field contains both regional and residual effects, the separation of
which remains as part of the interpretation (Chapters 7 through 9). This leads
to a second usage of the term anomaly: a series of values whose departure
from a normal or regional field is caused by the target(s) of interest.
For the student, the chapters are intended to be read in the sequence pre-
sented, and for the practitioner, in whatever order relevant to the exploration
problem at hand.
Chapter 2, “Principles of Attraction and Earth’s Gravity Field,” intro-
duces the reader to Newton’s gravitational force, the notion of potential,
the ellipsoid and the geoid, and the standard International Gravity Formula.
Chapter 3, “The Gravitational Potential and Attraction of Mass Distribu-
tions,” provides a mostly mathematical basis for a variety of mass sources,
along with an understanding of Laplace’s equation and its applicability both
inside and outside general distributions. It concludes, as discussed above,
with a discussion of Green’s equivalent layer and the problem of ambiguity.
Chapter 4, “Field Measurements,” discusses field operations, the acqui-
sition of absolute and relative gravity data, survey design, and the problem
of measurement uncertainty.
Chapter 5, “Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies,” describes typical
near-surface rock densities and how they are affected by porosity and its ten-
dency to decrease with depth owing to compaction. This chapter also treats
the variety of constituent mineralogy and its importance to rock density,
methods for determining density, and — in exploration — the all-important
differences in density.
Chapter 6, “Data Reduction,” recognizes that gravity observations are
strongly influenced by the nature of the field survey and the several environ-
ments that contribute to gravity variations unrelated to the geologic targets
we wish to study. Infield reductions, corrections for changes in elevation,
and the motion of the meter (if located in a moving vehicle, such as a marine
vessel or aircraft) are treated from the practical point of view of the explora-
tionist. The concept of isostasy is also included in Chapter 6.
Chapter 7, “Anomaly Interpretation Guidelines and Limitations,” starts
with the Bouguer anomaly, defined in Chapter 6, and proceeds to develop
the methods for analysis available to the explorationist, including anomaly
separation, depth-estimation rules, anomalous-mass determination, forward
calculations, the fast Fourier transform, and borehole gravity interpretation.
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Chapter 7 has four appendices dealing with the unit half-width circle, limit-
ing or maximum possible depth, corrections in the use of Gauss’ theorem,
and borehole gravity distance/thickness relationships. The purpose of the
appendices is to provide more detail without adding to the complexity of
the basic chapter.
Chapter 8, “Inversion,” treats a special subset of interpretation: the con-
struction of a geologic model based on a numerical procedure for which the
residual gravity anomaly is the input data set. Density inversion and geo-
metric boundary inversion are investigated in Chapter 8.
Chapter 9, “Geologic Applications,” covers a variety of important geo-
logic circumstances under which the gravity method has been and contin-
ues to be successful. These include salt structures, caprock, seismic pitfalls,
faults, borehole gravity, integration with seismic and magnetic data, and the
location of buried targets in mining applications.
Our wish is for the beginning student and the geophysicist early in his
or her career to develop an excitement for the technology as well as a firm
understanding of its applicability and limitation in the field of geologic
interpretation. For the seasoned interpreter, we hope the book will find a
place on the bookshelf to which one can turn in seeking answers to gravity
exploration questions.
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Chapter 2

Principles of Attraction
and Earth’s Gravity Field

Gravitational force
Consider two small masses, M0 and M1, whose radii are very small in
comparison with the distance r between the masses (Figure 1). Newton’s
universal law of attraction states that each mass attracts the other by a force
F, whose amplitude F is in direct proportion to the product of their masses
and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them:

M 0 M1
F=k , (1)

where k is the universal gravitational constant equal to 6.67 × 10–11 m3/kg∙s2

in MKS units (i.e., distances measured in meters, mass in kilograms, and
time in seconds) or 6.67 × 10–8 cm3/g.s2 in cgs units (centimeters-grams-
seconds). The force caused by M1 acting at and on M0 is directed along r
toward M1; an equivalent force acting on M1 by M0 also is directed along r
but in the opposite direction, toward M0. The resulting force F is a vector
quantity given by

M 0 M1r
F = –k , (2)

whose magnitude is stated in equation 1 and whose direction is in the direc-

tion toward the causative body. The negative sign is introduced to indicate
that r is measured from the source mass to the point of observation, whereas
the force F is directed in the opposite direction (i.e., toward the source).

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Figure 1. Attraction between two small masses separated

by distance r, with r̂ the unit vector directed from
r gravitational source to the observation point.


We will consider M0 to be a mass residing at our point of observation

and M1 to be the source mass causing a field at the point of observation.
Newton’s second law states that a body’s acceleration is equal to the ratio of
the force acting on the body to its mass. Denoting the gravitational accelera-
tion with g, we have

F Mr
g= = – k 31 . (3)
M0 r

As Galileo1 observed in 1632 (without the benefit of the inverse square law),
the acceleration of a body is independent of its mass.
In the MKS system of units the gravitational acceleration is measured
in meters per second squared, whereas in the cgs system, it is measured
in centimeters per second squared. The cgs unit of gravitational accelera-
tion is known as a Gal (after Galileo), with 1 Gal = 1 cm/s2. Although only
one part in approximately 980 of the earth’s normal field, the Gal is much
too large for exploration work; hence, the milligal (1 mGal = 10−3 Gal) is
commonly used in surface exploration surveys and the microgal (1 µGal =
10−6 Gal) in borehole gravity work and in 4D gravity surveys (the fourth
dimension being time; see Chapter 9). In the geophysical literature, one also
encounters gravity data given in gravity units (1 g.u. = 0.1 mGal).

Gravitational constant
By replacing M1 in equation 1 with the mass of the earth, 4 3 π R ρm, where R
is the radius of the earth and rm is its mean density, we obtain that the product of
the gravitational constant k and the mean density of the earth is given by

kρm = .
4π R
Hall (1963). Galileo’s experiments on acceleration were at least 10 years before

Newton’s birth and more than 50 years before the publication of the Principia
Chapter 2:  Earth’s Gravity Field  7
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The earth’s gravity g and its radius R can be measured so that the measure-
ment of either k or rm will lead to the determination of the other. Pierre
Bouguer in 1740 (see chapter 6) led an expedition to Peru (now Ecuador)
to determine arcs of the earth’s curvature at the equator which, although an
indirect requirement in their geodetic work, might have been the earliest
attempt to determine rm. His approach was to measure deviations in the
plumb line as affected by the high mountains in the Andes, but their mea-
surements were influenced strongly by isostatic effects (see chapter 6) that
were unknown at that time.
The earliest attempts to determine the constant k (which as we have seen
above leads to the determination of rm) were conducted in the laboratory by
Henry Cavendish. He used a torsion balance consisting of two small weights
that were deflected by interchanging the positions of two larger weights.
His result of 6.754 × 10−11 m3/kg∙s2 has been improved on in the succeeding
more than 200 years. However, this constant remains poorly determined in
comparison with any other basic physical constant because the gravity field
is much weaker than other fundamental forces.
The value accepted by the geophysical community is 6.67 × 10−11
m3/kg∙s2 or 6.67 × 10−8 cm3/g∙s2 in the cgs system2. For calculations desired
in milligals using length dimensions in kilometers and density in cgs units,
the factor is simply 6.67. For density expressed as kilograms per meter
cubed, the factor is 6.67 × 10−3. Although this value for k results in an aver-
age density for the earth of 5520 kg/m3, which is confirmed by independent3
means, its laboratory determination nonetheless contains a large uncertainty
in comparison with the other physical constants of the universe. However,
this issue is of very little concern in exploration work, as we will examine
in Chapters 6, 7, 8, and 9.

Gravitational potential
From equation 3, it follows that ∇ × g = 0. By Stokes’ theorem, this is
equivalent to g.dr = 0, which is a statement that the work done in moving
a unit mass is independent of the path taken. Such fields are called conser-
vative, and they can be represented as the gradient of a potential U. The
problem being spherically symmetrical for a point mass, we can express the
gradient of the potential in spherical coordinates, to obtain

 2Fixler (2007) reports a value of 6.693 × 10−11 with a standard error of the mean
of ± 0.027 × 10−11.
 3Verhoogen (1970, p. 617) reports an average earth density of 5517 kg/m3.
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∂U 1 ∂U 1 ∂U
g = ∇U = lr + lθ + lϕ,
∂r r ∂θ r sin θ ∂ϕ

where lr, lq , and lj are unit vectors in the r, q, and j directions, respectively.
Because of angular symmetry, the derivatives with respect to q and j vanish,
and this equation reduces to

∂U M
l = – k 2 lr .
∂r r r

The solution to the above equation is simply

U=k + C.

We evaluate the constant C of integration by requiring U (the gravitational

potential) to vanish at infinity and obtain

U=k . (4)

To calculate the potential at an exterior point P for an arbitrary 3D body,

we integrate the potential of each elemental mass dm = r dV = r dw dh dV
over the entire volume V (Figure 2):

ρ ( ξ , η , ζ ) d ξ d η dζ
U ( x , y, z ) = k ∫ 1 . (5)
V (ξ – x )2 + ( η – y )2 + (ζ − z )2 2
 

The potential is a scalar quantity, thus simplifying some of our opera-

tions. Surfaces of equal potential are known as equipotential sur-
faces, and the gravitational attraction is always perpendicular to these

The earth’s gravity field

The earth is surrounded by its own gravitational field, which exerts
an attractive force on all objects. If the earth were a stationary nonrotat-
ing spherical body, then the strength of its gravitational attraction would
Chapter 2:  Earth’s Gravity Field  9
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be constant over the surface of the x

earth, proportional to the earth’s

mass, and inversely proportional to
the square of the distance from the
center of the earth (see “Attraction y
of a spherical shell’’ in Chapter 3). dm ( , , ) = dv P (x,y,z )
The earth, however, is rotating
around its axis, which creates a cen-
trifugal force at every point on its
surface, being largest at the equa-
tor (about 3.4 Gal) and decreasing
toward zero as we approach the
poles (Figure 3). Thus, as a result
of rotation, the earth’s gravity field
will decrease from poles to the
The rotational potential caused z
by the centrifugal force is given by
Heiskanen and Moritz (1967) as Figure 2. Calculation of gravitational
potential at an exterior point P for
an arbitrary 3D body located in a
2 w2 r2, Cartesian-coordinate system.
where w is the angular velocity (7.292 × 10−5 rad/s) and r is the axial radius
shown in Figure 3. The maximum centrifugal force is less than 1/300 of earth’s
gravitational attraction.
The effect of the rotating earth, in addition to the centrifugal force,
results also in a flattening of the earth, with the final result being that the
earth now has a spheroidal shape (Figure 3). The equatorial radius of the
earth is Re = 6378.160 km, whereas the polar radius is Rp = 6356.775 km,
resulting in a flattening f given by

Re – Rp 1
f= = .
Re 298.257

Because of the difference between the polar and equatorial radii, it fol-
lows from equation 1 that the spheroidal earth will yield a larger gravi-
tational attraction at the poles compared with the equator. The combined
centrifugal force and flattening effects result in a difference of approxi-
mately 5.3 Gal between observation points at the equator and poles.
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The geoid
As mentioned above, the earth’s gravi-
tational field is normal to an equipotential
surface and defines the vertical at any loca-
tion. An equipotential surface of particular
interest is the one that coincides exactly
with the mean ocean surface of the earth
(assuming there are no tides or ocean cur-
rents) and extended through the continents
(such as with very narrow canals). The fact
that the mean ocean surface of the earth is an
equipotential surface for the earth’s gravita-
tional field can be explained by the fact that
Figure 3. The gravitational if this were not the case, then one would
force F from a nonrotating have a horizontal component of the earth’s
earth and the centrifugal force P gravitational field acting on the ocean water
combine to yield the observed and creating a gravitational current which
gravitational force g. is known not to exist (as opposed to known
ocean currents, e.g., the Gulf Stream).
This equipotential surface is known as the geoid, and it plays an important
role in gravity exploration (Figure 4). If we imagine a uniform rotating earth
(with oceans filled with rocks that have the same density as the continents and
the continents leveled to sea level), we would view an oblate ellipsoid, described
in the previous section and sometimes referred to as the spheroid. For such a uni-
form earth, the geoid and ellipsoid would be identical. The ellipsoid (or spheroid)
is an imaginary surface because the earth is irregular. The geoid departs from the
ellipsoid by dropping below it in oceans where seawater is less dense than the
rocks and by rising above it in continents where the mass per unit area increases.
The geoid is in essence an equipotential surface of the actual gravita-
tional field. The geoid is an irregular surface influenced by the underlying
masses. In the vicinity of a local excess mass which adds a potential ΔU to
the normal earth’s potential, the surface must warp outward to keep the total
potential constant (Figure 5).
Because of its complexity, the geoid is approximated by a rotating
oblate spheroidal surface of uniform density which, being very similar in
shape to an ellipsoid of revolution, is called the reference ellipsoid. The dif-
ference in height between the geoid and reference ellipsoid at most localities
is less than 50 m, with some exceptions. The gravitational field of the refer-
ence ellipsoid is known as normal or theoretical gravity and is used for the
computation of the gravity anomaly by removing the effect caused by the
earth’s oblateness and centrifugal acceleration.
Chapter 2:  Earth’s Gravity Field  11
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Deflection of the vertical

Plumb line



Geoid Geoid and sea level

Sea bottom

Figure 4. The geoid and the reference ellipsoid in relation to the earth’s
topography. The geoid coincides with the mean sea level and is an irregular
surface. The deflection of the vertical d is the local difference between the true
zenith (plumb line) and the theoretical vertical direction on a global ellipsoid.

The standard International Gravity Formula

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, increasing numbers of
measurements and international cooperation led to the so-called standard for-
mulas developed by and for geodesists but also used in exploration, relating
theoretical (or “normal”) gravity g to the latitude j of the station (in Gals):

1930: g = 978.0490 (1 + 0.0052884 sin 2 ϕ – 0.0000059 sin 2 2ϕ ),

1967: g = 978.031846(1 + 0.00523024 sin 2 ϕ – 0.0000058 sin 2 2ϕ ),

 1 + 0.00193185138639 sin 2 ϕ 
1980: g = 978.03267714  ,
 1 – 0.00669437999013 sin ϕ 

where the first two formulas are approximations and the last formula is
known as Somigliana’s equation, giving the theoretical gravity over the
reference ellipsoid. Note that the first term in the right-hand side of all the
equations is the value of the gravity field of the earth at the equator in Gals
(Geodetic Reference System, 1967).
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Plumb line perpendicular to the geoid


If the disturbing mass is positive, Ellipsoid

the geoid is warped upward If the disturbing mass is negative,
(as shown). the geoid is warped downward
(as in the case of the oceans).

Figure 5. The effect on the geoid of a body with excess mass.

Most of the more than 10 million gravity stations acquired during this
period have been reduced using the 1930 formula (accepted by the Inter-
national Union of Geodesy and Geophysics meeting at Stockholm). The
formula was based on pendulum measurements taken in 1906 in Potsdam
which are believed to be in error by about 14 mGal. The differences between
the formulas are not important in exploration because the useful signal
we interpret is itself relative within a survey. It is important, however, that
we use the same formula for each survey when, as is often the case, multiple
surveys are integrated in a region. As we will see in chapter 6, the theoreti-
cal gravity is subtracted from the observed station gravity, a process known
as latitude correction. In the first several decades in the modern exploration
era, tables were created based on the 1930 formula, from which the latitude
correction could be determined for each field station. In modern explora-
tion, the value of theoretical (or normal) gravity is computed and removed,
usually by field computers.

GPS and the geoid

The heights obtained from GPS are typically heights above the refer-
ence ellipsoid. At least four GPS NAVSTAR satellites are used to deter-
mine three position coordinates and time. The position coordinates x, y, z
are geodetic coordinates (datum WGS-84) latitude, longitude and height h
above the reference ellipsoid (Figure 6). The height displayed on most con-
sumer handheld GPS receivers is, however, the orthometric height H, the
height above mean sea level (MSL) and the only one of interest in explora-
tion. Orthometric heights are thus the vertical distance from the geoid to
the surface of the earth and, by convention, the sign is considered positive
Chapter 2:  Earth’s Gravity Field  13
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h Topography

Geoid N


Oceans Topography

Figure 6. The orthometric height H is obtained by adding (subtracting) to the

height h above the reference ellipsoid obtained by the GPS receiver the tabulated
ellipsoid-geoid separation height N.

as one moves radially outward. The conversion is done by interpolating

from a geoid-ellipsoid height separation model N (a lookup table in the
receiver’s firmware) and making the simple calculation of adding it to the
obtained height above the reference ellipsoid. Geoid-ellipsoid separation
heights in the conterminous United States range from about −8 m to −53 m,
and they display considerable variation in the mountains. By contrast, glob-
ally geoid-ellipsoid separation heights range from about +75 m to −100 m.
The geoid model for the earth is continuously refined. Different geoid
models will give different orthometric heights for a point, even though the
ellipsoid height (determined by GPS) might be very accurate. Therefore,
orthometric height should never be given without also stating the geoid
model used.
Although the orthometric height is the one commonly used in gravity
exploration, some geophysicists propose instead to use the height above the
ellipsoid. The main reason is that both latitude-correction estimates by the
International Gravity Formula and free-air correction estimates (see chapter
6) are designed to remove the gravity effects resulting from an ellipsoid of
revolution which can be calculated theoretically. In exploration for petro-
leum and for other minerals, the difference between the two approaches is
minimal because the geoid is a smooth surface. A global map of the geoid-
reference ellipsoid separation N is shown in Figure 7.
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Figure 7. Undulations of the geoid. Values indicate the height in meters above
or below the surface that is very close to an ellipsoid of flattening 1/298.3. after
Guier and Newton (1965), Figure 1. used by permission.
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Chapter 3

The Gravitational Potential and

Attraction of Mass Distributions

In the previous chapter, we investigated the gravitational acceleration g

and found that it can be derived from a scalar potential U. Based on these
definitions, we now investigate the gravitational attraction of a number of
mass distributions and derive some important consequences.

Attraction of a spherical shell

In Chapter 2, we found that to calculate the potential at an exterior point P
for an arbitrary 3D body, we have to integrate the potential of each elemen-
tal mass dm = r dV = r dw dh dζ over the entire volume V (equation 5 of
Chapter 2):
r (ξ , η,ζ ) dξ dη dζ
U ( x , y, z ) = k ∫ 1 .
(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
2 2 2 2

The potential is a scalar quantity, thus simplifying some of our oper-

ations. For example, suppose we would like to know the attraction at an
external point P of a hollow spherical shell that has a uniform surface den-
sity s   and radius a (Figure 1).
By using the potential from equation 4 of Chapter 2 and noting that
a very small element of mass dm located on the shell is equal to s ds, we
U = ks ∫ ,
where the integration is carried out over surface S of the shell.

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Figure 1. A uniform adθ

spherical shell.
dθ Uniform surface density
mass per unit area equals σ.
θ gr
r P


With h 2 = r 2 + a 2 − 2 a r cos q , ds = a 2 sin q dq dϕ and using spherical

coordinates, one obtains for points exterior to the shell (r > a)
p 2p p
a 2 sin q dq dϕ n q dq
U = ks ∫ ∫ = 2 p ks a 2 ∫
0 0 r + a − 2 a r cos q
2 2
0 r + a 2 − 2 a r cos q

2p k s a p 2 p ks a 4 p k s a2
 = r 2 + a 2 − 2 a r cos q = [(r + a) − (r − a)] = .
r 0 r r

Letting M = 4 p a 2 s be the total mass of the spherical shell, we can

write the potential at an exterior point as
U ext = k . (2)
From equation 2, because of symmetry, the gravitational attraction of the
spherical shell is oriented along r and can be obtained by taking the deriva-
tive of its potential with respect to r:

∂U M
gr = = −k 2 .  (3)
∂r r

The obtained result demonstrates the nice property that the attraction of
a uniform spherical shell at an external point is the same as it would be if all
the mass of the shell were concentrated at the point in its center. Hence, for a
uniform solid sphere made up of concentric uniform shells, its attraction at
an external point would be the same as if all its mass were concentrated at its
center. To appreciate the elegance and simplicity of this approach, one can
attempt the determination of the gravitational attraction of the shell directly
without recourse to its potential.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  17
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The same procedure can be used if the field point is inside the spherical
shell. In this case, in expression 1, we have (for a > r)

r 2 + a 2 − 2 a r cos q = (a + r ) − (a − r ) = 2 r

and, as a result, the potential at an interior point becomes a constant

(independent of r) equal to

U int = k . (4)

Therefore, the gravitational attraction of the shell at an interior point (again,

found by taking the derivative of the potential) is everywhere equal to zero.
At an internal point of a uniform solid sphere, the attraction is a function
only of the part of the solid sphere between the respective point and the
center of the sphere. Similarly to the shell, the portion of the solid sphere
between the point of observation and the outer radius of the sphere would
exert no attraction at the interior field point.
Let us now calculate the potential at an interior point of a spherical shell
of variable finite thickness a – r, extending from an interior radius r to an
exterior radius a. From equation 4, the potential at the interior point of a
spherical shell of radius r is constant and is equal to

M 4p r2 s
u=k =k = 4 p k s r. 
r r

To obtain the potential of the thick spherical shell, we integrate this expres-
sion over r. By noting that s = r dr, where r is the volume density, we obtain

a2 r 2
U = 4 p k r ∫ r dr = 4 p k r ( − ) = 2 p k r (a 2 − r 2 ),  (5)
2 2

a result we will use later on.

A study of the gravitational potential is valuable as a general basis for
developing techniques for data reduction and interpretation, as we will
see in later sections of this chapter and in the following chapters of this
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Components of attraction
Generally, we do not make measurements in the direction of the source
masses (this direction, for extended bodies, varies over a survey area), but rather,
we measure a component of the observed field. In a Cartesian-coordinate­
system (Figure 2), the potential at the point P resulting from mass m is given by
equation 4 of Chapter 2:
U=k ,

where r 2 = ( x − ξ )2 + ( y − η)2 + ( z − ζ )2 .
∂U ∂U ∂U
g = ∇U = i +j +k ,
∂x ∂y ∂z
the components of attraction in this coordinate system are
∂U m
gx = = − k 3 ( x − ξ ),
∂x r
∂U m
gy = = − k 3 ( y − η),
∂y r
∂U m
gz = = − k 3 ( z − ζ ).  (6)
∂z r
The above expressions can be written in a compact form as

 ∂U   x − ξ
 ∂x   r 
 gx     
    ∂U  m  y − η
g =  gy  =  = − k , (6a)
∂y  r2  r 
 g     
 ∂U  z −ζ 

   r 
∂z 
with the terms in the last bracket representing the direction cosines between
the total gravitational attraction and the coordinate axes.
Let us examine these components of attraction at a point P, which is
above a horizontal uniform sheet or lamina of infinite extent in all directions
(Figure 3). By symmetry, the horizontal x- and y-components of g are zero,
and we have only the gz-component, which is measured predominantly in
modern exploration work.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  19
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γ P (x, y, z )


m(ξ, η, ζ )

Figure 2. A source point, m, and a field point, P, in a Cartesian-coordinate system. A

vector and its direction cosines; a, b, and g are the angles the vector makes with respect
to the x-, y-, and z-axes. The cosines of these angles are known as direction cosines.

For the lamina, we find the vertical component gz by directly integrating

over the surface S of the sheet:
cos a dm
gz = k ∫ .

However, dm = s dS; therefore,

cos a dS
gz = ks ∫ .
The last integrand above is the solid-angle1 element dw subtended by
dS at P (Figure 4). For an infinite plane, the solid angle varies from 0 to 2p,

A solid angle is the extension to three dimensions of the concept of radian in two

dimensions. An angle in radians is given by L/r, where L is the arc length subtend-
ing the angle and r is the radius of the circle. A solid angle is that fraction S of
the surface of a sphere that a particular object projects on, as seen by an observer
located at the center of the sphere. The numerical value of the solid angle is S/r2 and
is given in steradians, a dimensionless quantity. For a sphere whose total surface
area is 4p r2, the solid angle is 4p steradians.
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and we then can write

gz = k s ∫ dw = 2p ks . 

If the infinite sheet has thickness t, we note that s  = r t (where r is the vol-
ume density), and we obtain the well-known Bouguer plate or Bouguer slab
gz = 2 p k r t ,  (8)

to which we will return many times.



∞ ds

∞ z

Figure 3. An infinite thin rectangular plate or lamina at depth h and with constant
surface density s.

Figure 4. Definition of a solid n

angle. S

Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  21
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Analysis of potential fields

Gauss’ theorem

Let us consider a region R in which masses occur completely bounded

by the surface S, as shown in Figure 5. A source mass m, located at point P,
will produce a small flux dϕ  across an elemental surface ds:

dϕ = g ⋅ dS = k lr ⋅ n dS ,  (9)
where lr is the unit vector along the direction of gravitational attraction g
produced by this mass and n is the normal to surface S. The amount of
flux across dS is proportional to the small solid angle dw and is either
+ m k dw or − m k dw , depending on whether the field exits or enters the
bounded space.
For a mass located inside the surface S (such as at P), the solid-angle
cone exits the region R one more time than it enters and the net flux is
− m k dw because the gravitational attraction produced by these masses is

Q dω g


g dω P

Figure 5. A closed irregular boundary enclosing all masses.

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directed opposite to the normal n to the surface. By integrating over the

whole surface S, we obtain a complete solid angle of 4p, and the total flux
resulting from mass m becomes
ϕ = −4 p k m.

This expression can be generalized immediately to account for all masses M

located inside surface S:
ϕ = −4 p k M. (10)

Thus, we can write

ϕ= ∫ g ⋅ n dS = ∫ g n dS = −4 p k M ,  (11)

which is Gauss’ theorem2, in which M is the total mass inside S and gn is

the normal component of gravity on the surface S. This is an extremely use-
ful theorem. It tells us that there is at least one unique piece of information
that a gravity anomaly can supply, namely, the amount of disturbing mass.
We make use of this theorem in the practical estimation of total mass in
Chapter 7, on interpretation. Gauss’ theorem is also useful for studying the
attraction of a few very simple models, such as the uniform sphere, cylinder,
and infinite slab or plate.
For masses located outside surface S, such as at a point Q in Figure 5,
the number of solid-angle entries is equal to the number of exits, and the net
flux through surface S is zero, or ϕ = 0 .

Laplace’s and Poisson’s equations

Using the divergence theorem, we can express Gauss’ theorem 11 as

ϕ= ∫ g ⋅ n dS = ∫ ∇⋅ g dV = −4 p k ∫ r dV .

Because g = ∇U and ∇ ⋅ ∇U = ∇ 2 U, we can write

∫ ∇ U dV = −4 p k ∫ r dV ,


The divergence theorem often is called Gauss’ theorem, a term in exploration


usually reserved for the determination of total mass.

Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  23
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from which, by equating the integrands, it follows that

∇ 2U = −4 p k r. (12)
This is known as Poisson’s equation. At points of free space outside the
source region (r = 0), equation 12 reduces to

∇ 2 U = 0, (13)
which is known as Laplace’s equation.
It is easy to show that a vector field derived from a potential U that satis-
fies Laplace’s equation has both the curl and the divergence equal to zero.
Indeed, if we assume that A = ∇U, then it follows that ∇ × A = 0. Finally,
using ∇ ⋅ A = ∇ ⋅ ∇U = ∇ 2U = 0 completes the proof.
Let us examine Laplace’s equation in a Cartesian-coordinate system
∂ 2U ∂ 2U ∂ 2U
∇ 2U = + + .
∂ x 2 ∂ y2 ∂ z 2

Consider a point P, external to all sources. The potential at P is given by

expression 5 of Chapter 2. Letting r = (ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2  2 in
expression 5 of Chapter 2, we have

∂  1 x−ξ
  =− 3 ,
∂ x  r r
∂ 2  1  3 ( x − ξ )2 1
  = − 3
∂ x2  r  r5 r

and similar expression for the derivatives along the y- and z-directions. It
immediately follows, by adding corresponding terms, that
∇ 2 U = 0,
and Laplace’s equation holds for points located outside sources.
Now we consider the case for a point P located inside the mass source,
as shown in Figure 6. First we describe a very small sphere, radius e, inside
which P is located. The radius e is so small that the density of the small
sphere can be regarded as constant. Let U1 denote the potential resulting
from the mass outside the little sphere, and let U2 denote the potential result-
ing from the mass inside the little sphere. Now U = U1 + U2. By equation
13, ∇ 2 U1 = 0 .
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Figure 6. Observation point P

located inside the mass.
P (x, y, z)

To evaluate U2, we will derive the potential and the gravitational attrac-
tion at a point r inside the small sphere. The problem simplifies if we con-
sider the potential U2 to be composed of two parts. Let u1 denote the ­potential
resulting from the spherical shell contained between r and e, and let u2
denote the potential resulting from the remaining sphere of radius r. The
potential u2 for a sphere of mass m and radius r is given by
4 3
pr kr
m 3 4
u2 = k = = p r2 k r.
r r 3

From equation 5, we have for the potential of the spherical shell

u1 = 2 p k r (ε 2 − r 2 ).

The potential U2, resulting from the mass inside the little sphere, is now given
2p k r
U 2 = u1 + u2 = (3ε 2 − r 2 ),  (14)
from which

∂ U2 4p k r ∂ r 4p k r x
=− r =− ,
∂x 3 ∂x 3
∂ 2 U2 4p k r
=− ,
∂x 2
∂ 2 U2 4p k r
=− ,
∂y 2
∂ 2 U2 4p k r
=− ,
∂z 2

and ∇ 2 U = ∇ 2 U1 + ∇ 2 U 2 = −4 p k r , i.e., Poisson’s equation holds.

Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  25
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Gravity calculations for simple geometries

The gravity meter (Chapter 4) is a very sophisticated weighing device.
It weighs in the direction of the plumb line that we call the vertical, which
is affected by the source masses under study. This effect is known as the
deflection of the vertical (defined in Chapter 2), which we will consider
again in Chapter 6. It is sufficient for present purposes to note that we are
interested primarily in the vertical component of gravity while considering
various geometric models.
The general form for calculating the vertical component of gravity
(1) decomposes the source distribution into small elements of mass dm
(Figure 7); (2) calculates, using Newton’s inverse square law, the gravi-
tational attraction caused by the mass dm in the direction, r, to the
­observation point; and then (3) multiplies the result by the cosine of the
angle between the direction r and the vertical axis z, which is given by
(z – z)/r. With dm = rdV and with volume dimensions of dx, dh′ , and dz,
the general form for the vertical component of attraction in the 3D case

d  1 r (ξ , η,ζ )(ζ − z ) dξ dη dζ
gz ( x , y, z ) = k ∫ r   dV = k ∫ ,  (15)
dz  r 

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V V 2 2 2 2

where r = (ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2 , and the integration is carried out

over the volume V of the body. Note that the above expression is nothing
more than the derivative in the z-direction of the expression for the potential
given in equation 5 of Chapter 2, i.e., gz = ∂U/∂z = Uz.
In the above integral (equation 15) and in equation 5 of Chapter 2, if
density r is constant, it can be taken outside the integral. In general, density
r is not constant (e.g., densities of sands and shales generally increase with
depth of burial because of compaction), and in such cases, r must remain
under the integral sign.
In gravity gradiometry (Chapter 4), one also measures the second-
∂ 2U
derivative terms of the gravitational potential. Letting U xy = and simi-
∂x ∂y
larly for other variables, the corresponding expressions are given in Table 1.3

3In this book, we will use both notations interchangeably, e.g., Uxy and gxy.
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P (x, y, z)
dm (ξ, η, ζ ) = ρdv

Plumb-bob direction

Figure 7. Gravitational attraction of an arbitrary 3D body in a Cartesian system.

Equation 5 of Chapter 2 and equation 15 of this chapter state that

given the density and geometry of the causative source, we can calculate
uniquely its gravity potential and its gravity anomaly, both of which van-
ish at infinity. We call this the forward calculation, or the forward prob-
lem. However, equation 5 of Chapter 2 and equation 15 of this chapter
also show that in the absence of information about density and geometry,
an observed gravity anomaly cannot be satisfied uniquely. We call this
the inverse problem and will return to it at the end of this chapter and in
Chapter 7.
The vertical component of gravity can be calculated in two ways:

1) Calculate first the potential using equation 5 of Chapter 2 and then differ­
entiate with respect to z, the vertical axis.
2) Calculate the vertical component of attraction directly using expression
15 of this chapter or, in special cases, by using Gauss’ theorem. However,
such calculations can be carried out analytically for only a few simple
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  27
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Table 1.  Gravitational potential and its derivatives.4

Function Formula
r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
U k∫ 1

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V 2 2 2 2

(ζ − z ) r (ξ , η, ζ ) d ξ d η dζ
Uz k∫ 3

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V 2 2 2 2

( ξ − x ) r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Ux k∫ 3

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V 2 2 2 2

(ξ − x )(η − y) r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Uxy 3k ∫ 5

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V 2 2 2 2

(ξ − x )(ζ − z ) r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Uxz 3k ∫ 5

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V 2 2 2 2

(η − y)(ζ − z ) r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Uyz 3k ∫ 5
(ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2  2

 2(ξ − x )2 − (η − y)2 − (ζ − z )2  ( r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Uxx k∫  5
(ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2  2

 2(ζ − z )2 − (ξ − x )2 − (η − y)2  ( r (ξ , η, ζ ) dξ dη dζ
Uzz k∫  5
(ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2  2

4Other derivatives can be obtained by circular permutation.


We saw previously that the potential at an external point P(x, y, z), result-
ing from a sphere with its center at a depth h, is the same as if all its mass
were concentrated at its center:
U=k ,
where R 2 = x 2 + y 2 + (h − z )2. To obtain the gravitational attraction, we dif-
ferentiate with respect to z to obtain (for z = 0)
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gz = k 3 . (16)
(x + y + h )
2 2 2 2

Some of the properties of the sphere anomaly and its higher-order deriva-
tives are given in Table 2 and are sketched in Figure 8.

Thin rectangular plate

For many simple geometries, equation 15 can be simplified. For exam-

ple, as we saw in Figure 3, if the depth extent (thickness) of the body is very
small with respect to its depth, we might consider its surface density (mass
per unit area) rather than a volume density. If its cross-sectional area is very
small, we might consider its lineal density (mass per unit length). Thus, the
number of required integrations is problem dependent.
We start with the horizontal thin rectangular plate shown in Figure 9,
for which we wish to know its vertical component of attraction gz. The
plate is at a constant depth h and extends along the x-axis from –a to +a and
along the y-axis from –b to +b, as shown in Figure 9. By dividing the plate

Table 2.  Gravitational anomaly of a sphere.

Location Maximum Depth to
of maxima (minimum) ­center of
Function Formula (minima)5 value sphere6

Uz kM
h x max = 0 max = kM h = ± 1.305 x1 / 2
(x + y + h )
2 2 2 2

hx kM
Uxz −3 k M 5 x max = − h/2 max = +0.858 —
(x + y + h )
2 2 2 2
x min = + h/2
min = − 0.858 3

2 h2 − x 2 − y2 2 kM
Uzz kM 5
x max = 0 max = —
( x 2 + y2 + h ) 2 2 x min = ± 2h
min = − 0.036

5 Because of symmetry, only the anomaly along the x-axis is considered.

6 Depth h is expressed as a function of abscissa x1 / 2, where the amplitude is half its maximum value.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  29
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1.2 Figure 8. Graphs

at arbitrary scales
1.0 of gz , gxz,, and gzz
for a sphere.



–40 –30 –20 –10 0 10 20 30 40

–0.2 Sphere

into small mass elements dm = s ds = s dx dh, we can write the vertical

­component as

h dξ dη
a b

gz = k s ∫∫ 3 .
(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + h 
−a −b 2 2 2 2

Letting u = x − x and v = h – y, we can write

a− x b− y
h du dv
gz = k s ∫ ∫ 3 .
−a− x −b− y
(u 2
+v +h2
2 2

First we will integrate the integral with respect to u and then with respect
to v, and we will include the integration limits only at the end. Using Grad-
shteyn and Ryzhik (1980, p. 86, formula 2.271.5), we obtain, after integrat-
ing over u,

gz = k s h u ∫ 1 .
( v + h )(u + v + h )
2 2 2 2 2 2
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Figure 9. A thin rectangular x

plate or lamina with constant
surface density s. (x, y, 0)
h gz
–a +a

dm = ds = d d


This integral can now be solved using Gradshteyn and Ryzhik (1980,
p. 89, formula 2.284) to yield
a− x b− x
gz = k s tan −1 . (17)
h u + v 2 + h2
−a− x −b− x

If we allow the sheet to become infinite in the y-direction (b → ∞), the

above expression reduces to
a−x a+x
gz = 2 k s (tan −1 + tan −1 ). (17a)
h h 
Note that if we allow the sheet to become infinite in all directions (a → ∞
and b → ∞), we obtain
gz = 2p k s ,

an expression we found before in equation 7. We will return to equation 17

in the chapter on interpretation (Chapter 7).

Vertical cylinder of finite depth extent

The calculation of the gravitational attraction of a vertical cylinder is

carried out more easily if we first derive the gravitational attraction of a
circular lamina of radius a located at a depth V   below the surface (Figure
10a). For an observation point P(0, 0, –z) situated along the lamina axis, we
obtain, after integrating first over j   and then over r,
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  31
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a) P (0, 0, –z ) b) P (0, 0, –z )

Surface (z = 0) Surface (z = 0)


ζ a



Figure 10. Calculation of the gravitational attraction along the axis of a circular
lamina and a vertical cylinder. Both have a radius a, and the vertical cylinder has a
finite depth extent (h2 − h1).

2p a
( z + ζ ) r dr dϕ 1
gz = k r ∫∫ 3 = 2p k r ( z + ζ ) − 1 =
0 r 2 + ( z + ζ )2  2
0 r 2 + ( z + ζ )2 2

 1 1   z +ζ 
= 2p k r ( z + ζ )  z + ζ − 2 2 2
1 = 2p k r  1 − 2 1 .

  a + ( z + ζ )     a + ( z + ζ )  
2 2

To obtain the gravitational attraction of a vertical cylinder of a finite-

depth extent, we have to integrate the above expression with respect to V
from h1 to h2 (Figure 10b) to obtain

gz = 2 p k r  h2 − h1 + a 2 + (h1 + z )2 − a 2 + (h2 + z )2  .  (18)

 

A closed-form solution for the general case of observation points located

outside the z-axis also can be obtained (Nabighian, 1962). For an infinite
circular cylinder of radius a with top at a depth h, the gravitational attraction
at a point P(x, 0, 0) is given by
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 1 − x2 p 
gz = 2 k r a  K ( k ) + (1 + x )2 + a 2 E ( k ) + a Λ0 (ϕ , k ) − pa  ,
 (1 + x ) + a
2 2
2 

where a = h/a, K(k) and E(k) are complete elliptic integrals of the first and
second kind, Λ 0 (ϕ , k ) is the Heumann lambda function7,

4x a
k2 = , and sin ϕ = .
(1 + x )2 + a 2 (1 − x )2 + a 2
For x = 0, the above expression reduces to

gz = 2p k r ( a2 + h2 − h , )
which is the well-known expression of the gravitational attraction on
the axis of the cylinder. For a = 0 (outcropping cylinder), equation18a
reduces to
gz = 2 k ra [ (1 − x ) K ( k ) + (1 + x ) E ( k ) ] . (18b)

The gravitational attraction of a vertical cylinder of finite depth extent can

be obtained by subtracting two infinite cylinders.

Vertical prism of finite depth extent

To obtain the gravitational attraction for a vertical prismatic body

(Figure 11), one has to solve the following triple integral for the vertical
component of attraction,
a b h2
ζ dξ dη dζ
gz = k r ∫ ∫∫ 3 ,
( x − ξ ) + ( y − η) + ζ 
− a − b h1 2 2 2 2

for calculations carried out for z = 0.

Letting u = x − x and v = η – y, we can write
a− x b − x h2
ζ du dv dζ
gz = k r ∫ ∫ ∫ 3 .
− a − x − b − x h1
(u + v + ζ )
2 2 2 2

A computational method to evaluate equation 18a was published by Nagy (1965).


The Heumann lambda function is obtained by combining incomplete elliptical inte-

grals of the first and second kinds plus Jacobi’s zeta function.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  33
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P (x, y, 0)

–a +a


Figure 11. Vertical prism with dimensions 2a and 2b and height (h2 – h1).

Again, we will first carry out the integration and apply the integration lim-
its only to the final result. The integration over V is straightforward to yield

du dv
gz = − k r ∫ ∫ .
u + v2 + ζ 2

We integrate over v using Gradshteyn and Ryzhik (1980, p. 86, formula

2.271.4) to obtain
gz = − k r ∫ ln ( v + u 2 + v 2 + ζ 2 ) du.

On integrating by parts,

 u u
gz = − k r u ln ( v + u + v + ζ ) −
2 2 2
∫v+ du  .
 u + v +ζ
2 2 2
u + v +ζ

2 2

To evaluate the integral in the above expression, we can write it in the form
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u u u 2 ( u 2 + v 2 + ζ 2 − v)
I = ∫v+ (u 2 + v 2 + ζ 2 ) u2 + v 2 + ζ 2
du = ∫ (u 2
+ ζ 2 ) u2 + v 2 + ζ 2
du =

u 2 du (u 2 + ζ 2 − ζ 2 ) du
∫ u 2 + ζ 2 ∫ (u 2 + ζ 2 ) u2 + v 2 + ζ 2 =
− v

(u 2 + ζ 2 − ζ 2 ) du du du
∫ u2 + ζ 2
− v∫
u + v +ζ
2 2 2
+ vζ 2 ∫
(u + ζ ) u 2 + v 2 + ζ 2
2 2

The first two integrations are straightforward, and for the last integral, we
use Gradshteyn and Ryzhik (1980, p. 89, formula 2.284) to obtain
 u v u 
I = u − ζ tan −1   − v ln (u + u 2 + v 2 + ζ 2 ) + ζ tan −1  .
ζ  ζ u + v 2 + ζ 2 

When applying the limits from –b to +b for the variable v, the variable
u in the equation above will cancel. After collecting all terms and reverting
to the original variables, we finally obtain the gravitational attraction of a
truncated prism as

gz = − k r [ (ξ − x ) ln (η − y + R) + (η − y) ln (ξ − x + R)

−1 η − yξ − x a b h2
+ ζ tann − ζ tan −1  , (19)
ζ ζ R  −a −b

where R 2 = ( x − ξ )2 + ( y − η)2 + ζ 2.
It is not difficult to see that although many simple geometries yield
closed-form or “exact” solutions to either equation 5 of Chapter 2 or equa-
tion 15 of this chapter, more complex simulations of the geology can be
solved only numerically. However, we should keep in mind that all such
models are fictitious in the sense that the actual geology does not behave
with densities and geometric boundaries everywhere constant. Regardless,
it is not uncommon to approximate a given geologic feature by the super-
position of multiple simple geometric bodies, a subject to be examined in
Chapter 7.

Gravity calculations for 2D geometries

If we can approximate the geology by assuming that its strike length
(distance along the y-axis in Figure 7) is extremely large in comparison with
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  35
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the other dimensions and that the density in that direction does not change,
the integral with respect to y in equation 15 could be taken first to large (but
finite) limits in both negative and positive directions and then examined as
those large limits approach infinity.

Horizontal cylinder of infinite length

The gravitational attraction caused by an infinite horizontal cylinder can

be calculated by using either equation 5 of Chapter 2 or equation 15 of this
chapter. However, the solution is easier to obtain using Gauss’ theorem, as
depicted in Figure 12.
By placing a Gaussian cylindrical surface of radius r, concentric with
the uniform cylinder of radius R, we note, by symmetry, that the gravity
attraction gr is constant on that surface and is directed toward the centerline
of the cylinder. By Gauss’ theorem,
1 1
4p k ∫ g ⋅ n dS = 4 p k S ⋅ g .

For a given length L, the cylinder mass is M = p R2r L, and the Gaussian surface
M 1 R2 r
area is S = 2πrL. With = , one obtains from above
S 2 r

M 2 k p R2 r 2 k λ
gr = 4 p k = = ,
S r r

where λ = p R 2 r is the mass per unit length of the cylinder and r > R. We
normally measure the vertical component of gravity gz to yield

Gaussian surface 1n Figure 12. A uniform horizontal

S = 2πrL gr gz infinite cylinder surrounded by a
Gaussian surface.

Uniform cylinder
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gz = 2 k p R 2 r , (20)
x +h
2 2

where x and h are the horizontal and vertical distances, respectively, of the
observation point with respect to the center of the cylinder. Some of the
properties of the infinite horizontal cylinder anomaly and its higher-order
derivatives are given in Table 3 and are sketched in Figure 13.
For the case in which the cylinder degenerates to an infinite line
mass of mass per unit length equal to λ = π R2ρ, the above expression
reduces to

gz = 2 k λ . (21)
x + h2

We will have further occasion to make use of equation 20 of this chapter in

Chapter 7.

Horizontal prism of infinite length

To obtain the gravitational attraction for the case of the infinite horizon-
tal prism (Figure 14), one has to solve the following triple integral for the

Table 3.  Gravitational anomaly for an infinite horizontal cylinder of radius R.

Location of Depth to
maxima Maximum center of
Function Formula (minima) (minimum) value cylinder8
h 1
Uz 2 p kR 2 r 2 x max = 0 max = 2p k R 2 r h = ± x1 / 2
x + h2 h

xh 1
x max = − 0.577 h max = + 1.3 p kR r 2
Uxz − 4p k R 2 r
(x + h )
2 2 2 h
x min = + 0.577 h 1
min = − 1.3 p kR 2 r 2

h2 − x 2 2p kR 2 r
Uzz 2 p k R2 r x max = 0 max =
( x 2 + h 2 )2 h2
x min = ± 1.732 h
p kR 2 r
min = −
8Depth h is expressed as a function of abscissa x1 / 2 , where the amplitude is half its maximum value.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  37
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vertical component of attraction:

∞ h2
ζ dξ dη dζ

gz = k r ∫ ∫∫ 3 .
a −∞ h1 ( x − ξ ) + ( y − η) + ζ 
2 2 2 2

The integrations can be carried out using the expressions derived for the
vertical prismatic body (see the subsection titled “Vertical prism of the finite

1.2 Figure 13. Graphs

at arbitrary scales
1.0 of gz, gxz, and gzz
for an infinite
horizontal cylinder.
0.8 gz




–40 –30 –20 –10 0 10 20 30 40

–0.4 Cylinder

a b Figure 14. Infinite-length horizontal

x prism of width 2b and height (h2 – h1).



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depth extent” in this chapter) to obtain

x−a b−x x−a
gz = 2 k s ς (tan
+ tan −1 )+
ς ς 2

ln ( x − a)2 + ς 2 + ln (b − x )2 + ς 2 . (22)
2 h1

Such a model is useful in representing the attraction caused by horsts or

grabens. From equation 22, we obtain

(a − x )2 + h22  (b − x )2 + h12 

gxz = k r ln  (22a)
(a − x )2 + h12  (b − x )2 + h22 

 h h h h 
gzz = 2 k r arctan 1 − arctan 2 − arctan 1 + arctan 2  . (22b)
 a−x a−x b−x b− x

2D thin sheet

In the third section of this chapter (“Analysis of potential fields”), we

found that the vertical component of attraction caused by a uniform thin
sheet (Figure 3) is proportional to the solid angle subtended by the sheet
at the point of observation, and we noted the general definition for the
solid-angle dw. For the case of the 2D thin sheet, shown in Figure 15,
the solid angle is extended to infinity in the directions perpendicular to the
plane of the figure and therefore can be represented by the plane angle q,
shown in the figure. By integrating in the y-direction from plus and minus
infinity, we can show that the solid-angle w is equal to 2q (note that for
an infinite plane, q = p, and we obtain the known result). For a thin sheet
whose surface density is s (mass per unit area), the vertical component of
attraction is

gz = 2 k s q . (23)

For a semi-infinite plate, expression 23 becomes

p x
gz = 2 k s [ + arctan ( )]. (24)
2 h

For an infinite plate, q is equal to p, s equals rt, and we obtain the famil-
iar Bouguer formula. Some of the properties of the 2D horizontal thin-
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  39
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x Figure 15. 2D uniform

gz horizontal thin sheet.

sheet anomaly and its higher-order derivatives are given in Table 4 and are
sketched in Figure 16.

Semi-infinite finite step

Expression 24 can be used to determine the gravitational attraction of a

finite step (Figure 17). To achieve this, one has to replace x in equation 24
with x + z tan a and integrate over z from h1 to h2. We thus obtain

p x + z tan a
gz = 2 k s ∫ [ + arctan ] dz. (25)
2 z

The first integral above is straightforward, and in the second integral,

we make the change of variables:

x + z tan a x x dv
= v or z = and dz = − v
z v − tan a ( v − tan a )2

to obtain

x + z tan a 1
∫ arctan z
dz = − x ∫
( v − tan a )2
arctan v dv.

Using Gradshteyn and Ryzhik (1980, p. 210, formula 2.855), the integral on
the right-hand side above can be evaluated to yield

x + z tan a v − tan a 1 + v tan a

∫ arctan z
dz = − x cos 2 a ( ln
1 + v2

v − tan a
arctan v ).
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Table 4.  Gravitational anomaly of 2D horizontal thin sheet.

Maximum Depth to
Location of (minimum) top of thin
Function Formula maxima (minima) value sheet9
p x
Uz 2 k s [ + arctan ( )] x max = ∞ max = 2pks
2 h

Uxz 2ks x max = 0 max = 2 k s h = ± x1 / 2
x 2 + h2 h
x ks
Uzz 2ks x max = + h max = +
x + h2
2 h
x min = − h
min = −
9 Depth h is expressed as function of abscissa x1 / 2 , where the amplitude is half its maximum value.

Figure 16. Graphs 35

at arbitrary scales
of gz, gxz, and gzz for 30
a 2D horizontal thin gz
sheet. 25



10 gxz


–30 –20 –10 0 h 10 20 30

Semi-infinite thin sheet

Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  41
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(0, 0) (x, 0) Figure 17. 2D finite

r1 h1 z h2
r2 1

To infinity

Reintroducing the variable z, one obtains

x + z tan a
∫ arctan z
dz = ( z + x sin a cos a )

x + z tan a 
arctan + x cos 2 a ln z 2 + ( x + z tan a )2 . (26)

After applying the integration limits and using the notation shown
in Figure 17, we finally obtain to gravitational attraction from a finite
step as

 r 
gz ( x ) = p k s t + 2 k s (h2 q 2 − h1q1 ) + x (q 2 − q1 )sin a cos a + x cos 2 a ln 2  ,
 r1 

where t = h2 – h1 is the thickness of the finite step, r1 = h12 + ( x + h1 tan a )2

and r2 = h22 + ( x + h2 tan a )2 . Note that as x ® ∞, θ2 ® θ1, and r2 ® r1, we
obtain gz ( x ) = p k s t , i.e., half the value of a Bouguer slab, as expected.
For a = 0, expression 27 reduces to the expression of a semi-infinite

 r2 
gz ( x ) = p k s t + 2 k s (h2 q 2 − h1q1 ) + x ln  .(27a)
 r1 

Some of the properties of the semi-infinite slab anomaly and its higher-order
derivatives are given in Table 5 and are sketched in Figure 18.
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Table 5.  Gravitational anomaly of a semi-infinite slab (vertical finite step).

Location of maxima
Function Formula (minima) Maximum (minimum) value x1 / 210

 r 
Uz p k r t + 2 k r (h2 q 2 − h1q1 ) + x ln 2  x max = ∞ max = 2πkp (h2 – h1) x1 / 2 = 0
 r1 

r2 h2
Uxz 2 k r ln x max = 0 max = 2 k r ln x1 / 2 = ± h1 h2
r1 h1
Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration

h2 h —
Uzz 2 k r (q1 − q 2 1 ) x max = + h1 h2 max = 2 k r (arctan − arctan 1 )
h1 h2
h1 h
x min = − h1 h2 min = 2 k r (arctan − arctan 2 )
h2 h1

Note: r1 = x 2 + h12 and r2 = x 2 + h22 .

10 x1 / 2 represents the coordinate where anomaly amplitude is half its maximum value.
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  43
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a) 35 Figure 18.
Graphs at arbi-
30 trary scales of gz,
gz gxz, and gzz for a
25 semi-infinite slab.



10 gxz


–30 –20 –10 0 10 20 30



b) 0
To infinity

The logarithmic potential

In Chapter 2, we developed the Newtonian potential given by equation 5
of Chapter 2. For 2D targets elongated in the y-direction, we can integrate
the potential in this direction from minus infinity to plus infinity and can
ob­tain what is called the logarithmic potential:

U (x, z) = ∫ ∫ r (ξ ,ζ ) log r dξ dζ , 
ζ ξ

where r = (ξ − x )2 + (ζ − z )2  2 .
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From equation 28, the gravitätional attraction for 2D targets can be writ-
ten as
gz = ∫ ∫ r (ξ ,ζ ) 2 dξ dζ . (29)
ζ ξ

Treating geologic solutions in cross section only (as if the geology were
strictly two-dimensional) is often convenient for demonstrating concepts (as
we will see) and is useful in displaying the results of interpretations, but the
third dimension should not be ignored except in those cases in which the
strike length of the geology is sufficiently greater than the cross-sectional
dimensions. A rule of thumb sometimes used is that for bodies whose length
is four times the distance to the point of calculation, the error (overcalcula-
tion by assuming two-dimensionality) is a little less than 10%. In some cases,
it might be desirable to calculate corrections for the nonexistent “ends” of
the structure, but usually, if such errors are of concern, it is more appropriate
to use 3D algorithms.

Green’s equivalent layer and the problem of ambiguity

Green’s first identity11 can be derived from the divergence theorem
applied to the vector field F = V ∇ U , where U and V are scalar functions
of x, y, and z in the region R, with V once continuously differentiable and
U twice continuously differentiable. Green’s first identity relates a volume
integration to an integration over a surface S that completely bounds the
∫∫∫ R
(V ∇ 2U + ∇U ⋅ ∇V ) dv = ∫∫
V (∇U ⋅ n) ds,(30)

where ∇ 2 is the Laplace operator and n is a unit vector everywhere normal to

the surface S. If we let U be a harmonic function satisfying Laplace’s equa-
tion and we set V = 1, we obtain from equation 30

 S ∂n
ds = 0. (31)

Thus the integral of the normal derivative of a harmonic function, over a

closed boundary surrounding the region in which the function is harmonic
and continuously differentiable, averages to zero.

Green’s three identities are derived from the divergence theorem and can be

studied in several mathematical texts, such as Kellogg (1929).

Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  45
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Green’s second identity is written as

∫∫∫ R
(V ∇ 2U − U ∇ 2V ) dv = ∫∫ (V ∇U − U ∇V ) ⋅ n ds,(32)
 S

in which U and V are again continuous functions of x, y, and z in region R

and have continuous partial derivatives of the second order, and n is a unit
vector everywhere normal to surface S. Now, from an infinite number of
possibilities, we select any surface completely bounding the disturbing mass
that is also an equipotential surface, and we choose any point P which is
outside surface S. Let r be the distance measured from P. If we let U = 1/r in
Green’s second identity and let V be the potential resulting from the disturb-
ing mass, then
 1 1    1 1 
∫∫∫  V ∇ 2   − ∇ 2V  dv = ∫∫  V ∇  r  − ∇V  ⋅ n ds. (33)
R  r r  S r 

Because P is outside region R, therefore, by Laplace’s equation, the

first term on the left vanishes. By Poisson’s equation, the second term on
the left is just the potential at point P resulting from the material within S,
multiplied by 4p or 4pVP. Because V is constant on S, the first term on the
right vanishes by Gauss’ theorem. This leaves, after using the divergence
1 2 1 ∂V
4p Vp = − ∫∫∫ ∇ V dv = − ∫∫ ds. (34)
Rr S r ∂n 

Thus, at any point outside S, the potential caused by a source inside S is the
same as it would be if all the material were spread over the equipotential
surface S with a surface density of
1 ∂V
− . (35)
4p ∂n 
The above relationship is called the Green’s equivalent layer. This is
a classic statement of nonuniqueness: A multiplicity of mass distributions
can cause an identical anomaly. Gravity measurements are usually but not
always limited to the earth’s surface. Therefore, the conditions stated above
can be met, except that it is usually unrealistic to concentrate 3D geologic
sources onto laminal surfaces without thickness.
Because surface distributions represent a class of bodies different from
those representing real geology, one might be inclined to dismiss Green’s
layer as not applicable to a large class of geologic problems. However,
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mathematical fictions are often very helpful in visualizing real-world prob-

lems and sometimes are not bad geologic approximations.
For example, in the general case in which our observations are out-
side the causative sources, Laplace’s equation must hold. A large number
of solutions to Laplace’s equation leads to a variety of mathematical fic-
tions intended to represent rock boundaries occurring within the earth (Fou-
rier series and sinx/x methods are examples) and is used from time to time
in geophysical studies. Such methods can allow us to calculate the depths
to layers on which the mass is concentrated and, with the help of external
information, can allow us to identify the most likely depth in a given geo-
logic problem. It is important to understand the accuracy with which sur-
face distributions can be used to represent volume distributions, and we will
examine this question further in Chapter 7.
Before considering the 3D class of bodies in this chapter, we should
point out that the equivalency developed from Green’s theorem also applies
to other geophysical methods. However, we are concerned here only with
the gravity method, and we wish to make a clear statement about the prob-
lem of ambiguity. In exploration projects, we normally measure the grav-
ity field in an area of interest, and in modern times (almost always), we
also have available other geophysical data sets as well as some geologic
In Chapters 6 and 7, we examine the various problems associated with
determining the observed gravity anomaly to be related to gz, defined in
equation 15, for which the density and geometry can be considered initially
to be unknown. The problem is clearly ambiguous if we lack information
about both the density and the geometry.
If, however, the observed anomaly caused by our target of interest is
unequivocally determined and either the density or the geometry is known
or can be assumed safely, then the remaining unknown quantity can be cal-
culated at least theoretically. With these constraints, we say that the solution
is unique. The questions of uncertainties that might affect our result with
respect to any of the steps required by data reduction and interpretation are
taken up in Chapters 6 and 7.
Perhaps the most referenced statement on the problem of ambiguity is
that of Skeels (1947), shown in Figure 19, in which each of seven geologic
boundaries (from an unlimited number) between the underlying basement
and overlying sedimentary section produces very nearly the same anomaly,
as shown. It has sometimes been assumed that these very different geologic
solutions produce exactly the same anomaly, but in fact, they were derived
empirically and, as with all such calculations, were performed to within
Chapter 3:  The Gravitational Potential  47
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Gravity anomaly Density Figure 19. Each interface has a

interfaces different density distribution, but
it causes nearly the same gravity
anomaly. After Skeels (1947),
2 Figure 1.

what was considered acceptable approximations. Nonetheless, Skeels’ cen-

tral point should not be missed: An excellent fit between the calculated and
observed anomalies does not by itself guarantee a correct interpretation.
In nearly every modern case, however, information in addition to equa-
tion 15 is available to the interpreter, and the extent of ambiguity can be
reduced significantly, as reported by Al-Chalabi (1971). By using parameter
hyperspace, he clearly shows many conditions under which ambiguity can
be limited. Nonetheless, Green’s equivalent layer, combined with the prob-
lems of ill conditioning12, requires that we consider alternatives to an initial
interpretation. It is relatively simple to replace any deep interpretive model
with one that is quite shallow, and the shallow model can be ruled out only
by geologic knowledge or understanding.
However, it is also possible to replace a model with a combination of
deeper structures within the precision of our measurements and our ability
to isolate the target anomaly. Consider, for example, in Figure 20, the shal-
low prism which causes the nearly 8-mGal anomaly depicted by the solid
line. We can find a deeper solution by making the central horst narrower
and thicker and adding two flanking drainage channels (or small grabens),
the calculated field for which is shown by the X symbols. This fit is found
through inversion after only two iterations and is very good. It can be made
better by more iterations, but the point has already been made that whether

12 Large changes in geometry, especially for deep sources, might cause only slight
changes in the calculated gravity field, rendering the accommodation of imperfectly
determined observed fields problematic.
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caused by ill conditioning, anomaly definition and separation issues, errors

in data reduction, or the fidelity of the model, information in addition to
equation 15 is required in gravity interpretation. We will turn to these issues
in the remaining chapters.


–30 –20 –10 0 10 20 30

Distance (km)
Depth (km)


Interpretation A: Single prism, density contrast = +300 kg/m3. Anomaly is shown by a

solid black line.

Depth (km)


Interpretation B: Three prisms, density contrast = +300 kg/m3 (central), –300 kg/m3 (sides).
Anomaly is shown by X.

Figure 20. Two prism interpretations produce nearly the same anomaly. These
anomalies were calculated independently, but a similar exercise (including a
shallower nonprismatic-equivalent source) was published by Jung (1961).
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Chapter 4

Field Measurements

The measurement of the earth’s gravity field, whether in absolute or
relative terms, is one of mankind’s greatest engineering achievements, the
accuracy of which can be on the order of one part in one billion of the earth’s
total field. During a period of more than one century, numerous instruments
have been invented, many of which have met with large commercial suc-
cess. It is not within the scope of this book to review the extensive history
of gravity instruments or to give details of instruments that are not now in
use. A complete description of all gravimeters mentioned in this chapter and
many others not mentioned here can be found in Nabighian et al. (2005),
along with their advantages and limitations.
In this chapter, we discuss absolute and relative instruments, gravity
gradiometry, field operations, measurement uncertainty, and ambiguity re-
lated to survey design.

Absolute-gravity measurements
The number of absolute-gravity measurements made at or near the
earth’s surface is still, in the early twenty-first century, only a very small
fraction of the total number of relative-gravity measurements made, which
is discussed below. Historically, absolute measurements were made using a
pendulum apparatus; modern devices use the free-fall technique.
The period of a simple pendulum is proportional to the square root of
its length and is inversely proportional to the square root of the local grav-
ity field. It is also a function of the amplitude of the pendulum’s swing,
which led to several refinements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

50  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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Extensive geodetic surveys were conducted during that time. Schuler (1923)
noted that the period of a pendulum whose length is equal to the earth’s
radius would have a period equaling the orbital period of an earth satellite
at low altitude (about 84 minutes). Interestingly, this is the same time as the
round trip for an object dropped into a frictionless hole (any complete chord,
not just through the center) in a uniform nonrotating sphere whose density
is the same as the mean density of the earth. Pendulums were also used as
relative meters but have been superseded by modern gravity instruments
discussed below.
Zumberge et al. (1983) report the results of an absolute-gravity survey
in the United States in which 12 locations (requiring one day at each site)
resulted in a measurement accuracy of 10 μGal. These instruments are larger
and less portable than conventional relative meters, and both the purchase
price and the field-acquisition costs exceed those of conventional surveying
considerably. Absolute-gravity instruments now yield accuracies of about
1 μGal, are used routinely by academic and government institutions, and are
important in establishing and tying gravity networks and in studying earth
tides and crustal deformation. In recent years, in spite of the increased cost,
absolute-gravity surveys are also being used, usually in combination with
relative meters, in oil-field reservoir monitoring and in so-called 4D surveys
wherein the fourth dimension is time.
Figure 1 is a schematic diagram illustrating the free-fall method for
measuring absolute gravity. A laser interferometer is used to measure with
very high precision the distance an object is dropped. In 2004, the Bureau
International des Poids et Mesures accepted this method as an official pri-
mary method for the measurement of gravity. The time required for free fall
is measured with an atomic rubidium clock.

Relative-gravity instruments
Many gravity meters have been introduced since the 1930s. These, along
with their history and that of the torsion balance and pendulums which pre-
ceded them, are discussed in some detail by Nabighian et al. (2005), who
also include an extensive list of references on the subject.

Spring gravimeters
In the simplest of terms, the spring gravity meter works like a very
sophisticated device that can measure the elongation of a spring when sub-
jected to the weight of a test mass. Figure 2 shows that the device is brought
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Figure 1.  Principle of

Free-falling operation for absolute-
gravity measurements.
Courtesy of Micro-g
LaCoste. Used by

to a “null” position at sta-

tion A, where gravity is al-
ready known or can be tied
to a known gravity sta-
tion. The device is moved
to station B and nulled
again. By careful calibra-
tion of the instrument, the
change in gravity Δg can
be found by the change in
Interferometer the spring elongation Δd.
As an order of magnitude,
a change in gravity of 0.1
mGal would require the
measurement of a change
in the spring length Δd of
better than 10−5 cm.
To detect very small
changes in gravity of im-
portance to modern explo-
lower mirror
ration, various techniques
are employed in building
instruments that can mag-
nify the very small cha-
nges in the spring. This is
usually accomplished by optical, mechanical, or electrical mechanisms.
Today, most land gravity surveys are carried out using one or more of a few
of the surviving types: the Worden and Scintrex (both using quartz springs)
and the LaCoste and Romberg (now part of the Micro-g company) and Bur-
ris (using metal zero-length springs) (LaCoste, 1934).
Figure 3 illustrates the concept of LaCoste’s zero-length spring, which
is now widely used in several gravity meters. The concept is for the system
52  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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to have an infinite period: By moving the test mass m located at the end of
a beam, the spring length S changes, but so does the angle between mg and
the moment arm b, and those effects cancel. In practice, to avoid the prob-
lem of not finding a null position or equilibrium point, the y-axis is tilted
a very small amount. The meter is quite sensitive and meets the practical
requirement for field usage.

Station A Station B

d d+ d

g+ g

Figure 2. Difference in gravity between stations related to difference in spring length.

Figure 3. Schematic diagram of

the LaCoste and Romberg zero-
length spring gravimeter. Courtesy
of Micro-g LaCoste. Used by


Pivot b


g + ∆g
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a) c)
Level bubbles


Adjustment dial Reading


Figure 4. Spring gravimeters. (a) LaCoste and Romberg G meter. Courtesy of Micro-g
LaCoste. Used by permission. (b) Scintrex CG-5. Courtesy of Scintrex. Used by
per­mission. (c) Worden (SEG Virtual Geoscience Center, 2006).

In nearly all land, borehole, marine, and airborne surveys, a “still” read-
ing (in which the null position of the meter is determined) is taken at an
initial place, usually a base station (discussed below), at which the absolute
value of gravity is already known or can be determined by tying that station
to another station whose absolute gravity is known. Subsequent field sta-
tions or traverses are then obtained for which only differences in gravity are
determined, hence the term relative gravity.
Many of the gravity meters in use have a limited range of operation that
must be reset if the change in the earth’s gravity field within the survey area
exceeds the range over which the instrument can be nulled. The LaCoste
and Romberg instruments (Figure 4a) and a few others are designed for a
worldwide range and do not require resetting. Each gravity meter is cali-
brated before leaving the factory, leading to a calibration factor or table of
factors, enabling the user to convert gravity readings into the appropriate
units of gravity.
The operation is subject to two errors: (1) screw “backlash” and (2) meter
drift, or “spring hysteresis.” It is important for the operator to always ap­­
proach the null position by turning the screw in the same direction. If the
operator overshoots the null position, then the process should be repeated
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by backing the screw position and reapproaching the null position. A good
operator can take a meter reading in just a few minutes.
All spring gravity meters capable of measuring small differences in
gravity suffer from a phenomenon known as instrument drift, which results
from the fatigue of internal components, whether made of metal or quartz,
and from small mechanical instabilities.
As discussed below and in Chapter 6, this is a time-varying function
requiring the reoccupation of stations with a frequency that depends in part
on the characteristics of the particular meter employed. A reoccupation rate
of one to two hours is commonly used in exploration work. Quartz springs
generally cause greater and more erratic drift than metal springs. Some
meters, particularly the LaCoste and Romberg, have drift characteristics
that can be treated as linear over a greater length of time and that improve
with instrument age.
Two other instruments that have found wide use in exploration are
the Scintrex CG5 (Figure 4b) and the Worden (Figure 4c). The LaCoste
and Romberg gravity meters have met with the most success and are
preferred by a majority of gravity surveyors, but of course, most meter
operators will be required to use the meter(s) their organization has in
its inventory.

Vibrating-string gravimeters
In the mid-twentieth century, several instruments were constructed
based on the principle of the vibrating string (Gilbert, 1949). An elastic
string vertically suspended with a mass at its end (under tension) vibrates
with a frequency directly proportional to the square root of the local grav-
ity field. The vibrating-string instrument was designed originally for work
in submarines (Wing, 1969). Later versions were developed for boreholes
(Howell et al., 1962; Goodell and Fay, 1964) because of the natural elonga-
tion of the instrument housing.
A more complicated version uses a vertically suspended double-
string and double-mass system. The second string and mass are mounted
below the first string and mass using a weak spring, and the entire system
is constrained at both ends. In this system, a difference in gravity results
in a difference in the tension of the two strings. Accordingly, the natural
frequencies of the strings are different, in proportion to the difference in
In 1973, a double-string and double-mass vibrating-string sensor devel-
oped by Bosh-Arma was used to successfully obtain gravity measurements
on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission (Chapin, 2000; Talwani, 2003).
Chapter 4:  Field Measurements  55
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That is the only time successful gravity measurements have been made by
humans on a celestial body other than earth.
Vibrating-string gravimeters have the advantage of generally being
physically smaller than spring gravimeters but with a larger dynamic range.
These instruments were subjected to considerable research and development
but were not competitive for land use and were superseded for borehole use
by the LaCoste and Romberg instrument discussed below.

Superconducting gravity meter

A superconducting gravimeter, the iGrav™ SG meter, is available but
has not yet found widespread applications in industry. These instruments
operate by suspending a diamagnetic superconducting niobium sphere
cooled by liquid helium in an extremely stable magnetic field. The current
required to generate the magnetic field that suspends the niobium sphere
is proportional to the strength of the earth’s gravitational field. Such gravi-
meters have extraordinary sensitivities of 1 nanogal (10−9 Gal) and a drift
of less than 0.5 µGal/month. Virtanen (2006) describes how an instrument
at Metsähovi, Finland, detected the gradual increase in surface gravity as
workmen cleared snow from its laboratory roof.
Land operations require that the meter is first leveled1 and then a null
reading is obtained by the operator or by automatic nulling electronics. If x
is the beam displacement, the appropriate differential equation of the motion
of the beam is (Nettleton et al., 1960)
x + δ x + cx = g + a + Ky,

where the first term is the beam acceleration; the second term is velocity mul-
tiplied by a damping coefficient δ; the third term is beam displacement mul-
tiplied by c, the net restoring force on the beam; g is the gravity acceleration
resulting from geology; a is the acceleration resulting from the motion of the
instrument; y is the spring tension adjustment; and K is an empirical coefficient.

 1 Some gravimeters made by Scintrex and by LaCoste and Romberg are self-lev-
eling for small, moderate ground inclinations. This is a very useful feature when
working in jungle areas where lines have to be cut and the Global Positioning Sys-
tem (GPS) is not operational everywhere because of tree canopy. The survey is done
with a helicopter that lowers the self-leveling gravimeter to the ground, takes the
reading, and retracts the gravimeter. The GPS-determined elevation in the helicop-
ter minus the cable length used to lower the gravimeter gives the station elevation.
56  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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Figure 5. Micro-g LaCoste air-

sea gravity system. Courtesy
of Micro-g LaCoste. Used by

In a stable land environment,

the first, second, and last terms
are zero. For marine and airborne
work, the damping coefficient δ is
made very large, the spring tension
is adjusted continuously, and a
feedback system keeps the instru-
ment close to the null position.
Inline and transverse gyroscopes
are used to maintain the platform
in a horizontal position with the
aid of horizontal accelerometers.
Details of this technique for
measuring gravity while the instru-
ment is in motion can be found in
LaCoste (1967). Techniques for
identifying the gravity signal g in
conditions where the motional ac-
celeration a might be more than 100,000 times greater are discussed in Chapter
6. The measurement of gravity on a stabilized platform is subject to cross-cou-
pling effects (an interaction between the horizontal and vertical accelerations)
for which an onboard computer has been designed (LaCoste et al., 1967). This
is discussed further in Chapter 6. An illustration of the Micro-g LaCoste air-sea
gravity system is shown in Figure 5.
Modifications to the standard land stationary instruments were introduced
in the last half of the twentieth century to enable gravity surveys in downhole,
offshore, and airborne environments. Currently, most of those instruments are
LaCoste and Romberg borehole or air/sea devices, but a few Bell Aerospace
and Bodenseewerk stabilized-platform instruments for continuous recording
are also in operation. At this writing, LaCoste and Romberg has the only com-
mercially available borehole instruments used primarily for petroleum explo-
ration, although Scintrex has recently developed a slim-hole borehole gravity
meter (Gravilog) which can also be used in mining applications. Both of these
instruments are land sensors made smaller, included in a sonde, and connected
to recording electronics by wires.
Chapter 4:  Field Measurements  57
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Satellite-derived gravity
The modern era of satellite radar altimetry, beginning with ­SEASAT in
1978, ushered in a golden age for imaging and mapping the global marine
geoid and its first vertical derivative, the marine free-air gravity field. The
SEASAT mission was equipped with oceanographic monitoring sensors and
a radar altimeter. The altimeter was designed to measure sea-surface topog-
raphy in an attempt to document the relief caused by water displacement
from large-scale ocean currents (e.g., the Gulf Stream) or water mound-
ing caused by local gravity anomalies within the earth’s crust and upper
mantle. Haxby et al. (1983) produce the first global marine gravity map
from SEASAT satellite altimeter data using interorbital track spacing of
about 180 km. The advent of a public-domain global marine gravity data-
base with uniform coverage and measurement quality provided a significant
improvement in our understanding of plate tectonics and had a significant
impact on regional exploration.
Figure 6 shows a map of a satellite-derived marine free-air gravity
field merged with a terrestrial gravity field. Understanding of the marine
free-air gravity field continues to improve as additional radar altimeter
data are acquired by new generations of satellites. The subject of gravity
measurements from satellites is treated in more detail in the section titled

–150° –120° –90° –60° –30° 0° 30° 60° 90° 120° 150°

60° 60°

30° 30°

0° 0°

–30° –30°

–60° –60°

–150° –120° –90° –60° –30° 0° 30° 60° 90° 120° 150°
–61.1 –31.6 –21.4 –14.9 –10.0 –5.6 –2.7 0.11.5 4.4 7.5 10.6 14.2 18.4 24.0 32.5 48.3

Figure 6.  Satellite-derived marine free-air gravity field merged with terrestrial
gravity field (Sandwell and Smith, 1997, 2001). Courtesy of D. T. Sandwell. Used
by permission.
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“Satellite gravity and satellite-derived gravity” in Chapter 9 and will not be

discussed further here.

Gravity gradiometry
The conventional gravimeter measures a single component (the vertical
component) of the gravity-field vector. As we have seen in Chapter 3, the
gravity field can be represented as the gradient of a potential:

 ∂U 
 ∂x 
 gx   
∂U 
g = ∇ U =  gy  = .
 ∂y 
 g   
 ∂U 

 
∂z 

A gravity gradiometer measures the gravity gradient or how the gravita-

tional acceleration changes over distance in the horizontal and vertical di-
rections. A full-tensor gradiometer measures the changes in the x-, y-, and
z-directions of each of the three components of the gravity field gx, gy, and
gz, yielding the tensor

 ∂ 2U ∂ 2U ∂ 2U 
 dx 2 dx dy dx dz 
 U xx U xy U xz   
   ∂ 2U ∂ 2U ∂ 2U 
∇∇ U =  U yx U yy U yz  = ,
 dy dx dy 2 dy dz  (1)
 U U zy U zz 
zx  ∂ 2U ∂ 2U ∂ 2U 
 
 dz dx dz dy dz 2 

where Uxz is the gradient in the z-direction of the x-component of gravity and
similarly for the other components. The above tensor with nine elements
is symmetrical, e.g., Uxy = Uyx, and the diagonal elements are connected
through Laplace’s equation, thus leaving only five independent components
out of nine. Notice also that as a result of differentiation, the sources of grav-
ity gradients are not monopoles anymore.
The first gradiometer was the torsion balance, developed in 1886 by
Baron Loránd Eötvös. Two weights were suspended from a torsion fiber at
unequal heights. The weights were separated vertically and horizontally, so
they experienced different forces because of their spatial separations. From
Chapter 4:  Field Measurements  59
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these, one can determine both the horizontal gradient of the vertical com-
ponent of gravity and the horizontal gradient of the horizontal component.
With careful measurement procedures, accuracies of a few Eötvös units
(1EU = 10−9/s2 = 0.1 mGal/km) could be obtained.
Such an instrument was used extensively in exploring for salt domes,
particularly on the U. S. Gulf Coast, culminating with the first geophysical
discovery of an oil field at the Nash salt dome in 1924. Although accu-
rate, the Eötvös torsion balance was slow and cumbersome, and it was sup-
planted by the now familiar gravity meter when it became available between
1935 and 1940.
The driving force behind the development of gravity-gradiometer sys-
tems in recent times has been their use on moving platforms. Usual airborne
gravimeters require significant corrections for the vertical acceleration of
the platform and velocity-dependent interactions with the rotation of the
earth (Eötvös effects; see Chapter 6). Although the use of the Global Posi-
tioning System (GPS) has greatly improved the situation, the above fac-
tors are still the main impediments to achieving high accuracies in airborne
gravity measurements. In principle, gradiometers are completely immune
to these effects, although in practice, the effects are always present at some
level. Regardless, gravity gradiometers have typically higher accuracy and
better spatial resolution than gravimeters do.
Today, there are two commercially available gravity gradiometers:
the full-tensor gradient (FTG) system used by Bell Geospace and ARKeX
(built by Lockheed Martin) and the Falcon system developed by BHP Bil-
liton, manufactured by Lockheed Martin and now operated by Fugro. The
FTG system measures the five independent elements of the full gravity
tensor shown in Figure 1, whereas the Falcon system measures the differ-
ential curvature gradients:

∂ 2U ∂ 2U ∂ 2U
− and ,
dx 2 dy 2 dx dy

which are then transformed into the more common vertical gravity gz and
vertical gravity gradient gzz during data processing to form maps.
Both systems are a direct result of gravity-gradiometry developments
by the U. S. Navy for use on its submarines. The FTG is used for land,
marine, submarine, and airborne surveys, whereas the Falcon is used for
airborne surveys only. In addition, Stanford University, the University of
Western Australia, Gedex, and ARKeX are all designing their own new air-
borne gravity-gradiometer systems.
60  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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The FTG system uses three small-diameter gravity-gradient instruments

(GGIs) mounted on an inertial stabilized platform (Figure 7). Each GGI
contains four gravity accelerometers mounted on a rotating disk in a sym-
metrical arrangement such that each of the individual accelerometer input
axes is in the plane of the rotating disk, parallel to the circumference of the
disk and separated by 90º. The individual accelerometers consist of a proof
mass on a pendulumlike suspension that is sensed by two capacitive pick-off
rings located one on either side of the mass.
The signal generated by the pick-off system is amplified and converted
to a current that forces the proof mass into a null position. The current is
proportional to the acceleration. Vehicle accelerations are eliminated by
frequency separation in which the gradient measurement is modulated at
twice the disk-rotation frequency (which is 0.25 Hz), leading to a forced
harmonic oscillation. Any acceleration from a slight imbalance of oppos-
ing pairs of accelerometers is modulated by the rotation frequency. This
permits each opposing pair of accelerometers to be balanced precisely and
Six gravity-gradient components are measured and referenced to three
coordinate frames. From these six components, five independent compo-
nents can be reconstructed in a standard geographic reference frame. The
remaining components of the gravity-gradient tensor are constructed from

12 accelerometers, three disks

Spin axis

y-a x-a



Figure 7. The full-tensor gradient (FTG) system by Bell Geospace (made by

Lockheed Martin). Courtesy of Bell Geospace. Used by permission.
Chapter 4:  Field Measurements  61
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Laplace’s equation and the symmetry of the tensor. For a review of the FTG
sensor design, see Jekeli (1988) and Torge (1989).

Satellite-measured gravity gradiometry

The gravity field and steady-state ocean circulation explorer (GOCE)
and the gravity recovery and climate experiment (GRACE) satellites are
also capable of measuring the earth’s gravity gradients, which allows scien-
tists to have access to the most accurate model of the geoid ever produced to
further our understanding of the earth.
The GOCE satellite flies at a low altitude of 250 km and has six highly
sensitive accelerometers that measure gravity gradients. GRACE uses two
satellites flying about 220 km apart in a polar orbit at an altitude of 500 km.
It determines gravity components by making accurate measurements of the
distance between the satellites with an accuracy of a few microns, using
GPS and a microwave ranging system.

Field operations
Gravity data are acquired on the land surface, on the sea bottom, on
the sea surface, in the air, and in boreholes and mine shafts. In the early
twenty-first century, field operations are planned and executed in all these
environments except that underwater (sea-bottom) surveys have become
nearly extinct, having been replaced almost entirely by surface-ship opera-
tions2. The latter are compatible with modern 2D and 3D seismic opera-
tions being run simultaneously with gravity surveys. Gravity-only marine
surveys, wherein the cost of the ship and positioning system must be borne
solely as a gravity expense, have been superseded by gravity-gradiometry
More than 10 million land gravity stations have been acquired through-
out all continents (Nabighian et al., 2005). Most of them are given an abso-
lute-gravity reference by tying local surveys to national and international
networks. Typically, in a new survey, base stations are established by carry-
ing absolute values from nearby networks. The new field stations are then
surveyed in a sequence (a “loop”), starting and ending with a measurement

 2Recently, underwater (sea-bottom) instruments have seen a resurgence, being

applied in time-lapse gravity surveys (or 4D, in which the fourth dimension is time)
for reservoir monitoring (see also the section titled “Time-lapse [4D-gravity] sur-
veys” in Chapter 9).
62  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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at the newly designated base3. Time-dependent corrections are applied as

described in Chapter 6, and the principal parameters (horizontal coordi-
nates, elevation, and absolute gravity) are recorded for each station.
The time duration of each loop should be short enough (one to two
hours) so that the drift of the instrument (discussed above) can be treated
as a linear function of time. In addition, one or more stations should be
repeated within the same loop (as a check on instrument drift) and one or
more at previously established stations in a different loop so that a statement
can be made as to the statistical repeatability of the survey. The station spac-
ing (meters or tens of meters for archaeological and engineering surveys
and tens, hundreds, or thousands of meters for exploration surveys) is deter-
mined based on the distributions and depths of the subsurface targets. One
rule of thumb is to separate stations not more than half the expected target
burial depths, although there are exceptions, as noted in the section below
titled “Measurement uncertainty.”
Marine and airborne gravity surveys entail the operation of moving-
platform gravity instruments along multiple traverses, called primary lines
and tie lines. Unlike land gravity measurements, which are made at rest,
marine and airborne gravity observations are subjected to both horizontal
and vertical motion, requiring filtering and corrections for the unwanted
motional effects. Modern GPS acquisition and processing technologies
have markedly improved the final gravity product in marine and airborne
Marine operations have the advantage that the vertical motion of the
ship oscillates about a constant elevation (near sea level), whereas airborne
operations typically fly at a constant barometric elevation for which the
average vertical coordinate can vary from traverse to traverse and from day
to day. In both cases, however, the intersection differences between the val-
ues obtained along the primary lines and those observed on the tie lines are
very important for adjusting the gravity data and for estimating the accuracy
of the survey. In offshore 3D seismic surveys, gravity data can be acquired
along lines that are very closely spaced, yielding a near redundancy and
enabling significant improvement in noise reduction.
More than 1000 wells have been logged in hydrocarbon explora-
tion using the LaCoste and Romberg borehole gravity meter (Figure 8).
However, the widespread use of this tool has been curtailed in the last
few decades because of instrument limitations: minimum hole diameter

 3Sometimes absolute-gravity meters can be used at the end of a line segment to

avoid returning to the designated base.
Chapter 4:  Field Measurements  63
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Shown with
in sonde
hole deviation

Figure 8. LaCoste and Romberg borehole gravity meter. Courtesy of Micro-g

LaCoste. Used by permission.

of about 5 inches, hole deviation from vertical of not more than about
14°, and temperature limits that generally preclude depths much greater
than 12,000 to 15,000 ft (3700 to 4600 m). Poisson’s equation (equation
12 of Chapter 3) provides a basis for determining apparent bulk density
of a large volume of rock beyond the borehole and between stations. We
will examine this determination of density in Chapters 5 and 7.
Currently, instrument readings are static, similar to land measurements,
but are observed remotely using electronics connected to the meter by a
wire line extending to the depth of observation. As with land operations
discussed above, discrete stations are observed in loops to enable the iden-
tification and removal of instrument drift. In oil and gas work, the stations
are usually separated by 20 ft (7m), but smaller and larger intervals might be
incorporated, depending on the nature and expected distance from the well
to the geologic source.
The resolution of apparent density is affected by the relative accuracy of
the determination of station depths (generally, but not universally, 1 cm or
larger) as well as that of the gravity instrument, which is usually more than
5 μGal. The recently developed slim-hole Gravilog system by Scintrex does
not have some of the limitations of the BHGM system because it is operational
in boreholes inclined as much as 60º from the vertical and with an accuracy of
more than 5 μGal. The Gravilog system presently can survey in boreholes of a
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minimum diameter of 57.2 mm (2¼ inches), but only to depths as much as

2000 m.
Research and development of new borehole tools to observe at higher
temperatures (greater depth) and to enable leveling at any hole deviation
continue to be very active. One of the principal goals in modern research is
to develop a gradiometer that can enable continuous logging.
Gravitec Instruments has developed a sensor technology conceived by
Veryaskin (1999) which employs a “string,” or “ribbon,” as the detection
device. The string device has the unique ability to detect gradient signals
with a single sensing element, as opposed to conventional gravitational
instruments which are based on multiple accelerometers. This instrument
is characterized by a lack of moving parts and very small size and weight.

Measurement uncertainty
Limitations on and resolution of our ability to interpret gravity anomalies
in geologic terms (Chapters 7, 8, and 9) start with the uncertainties inherent
in field measurements, and these uncertainties depend strongly on the nature
of the field operation. Figure 9 summarizes the achievable accuracies for
land, borehole, underwater, gradiometer, surface-ship, airborne, and satellite
operations. For land, borehole, and underwater surveys, discrete readings are
obtained, and observable wavelength is a function of station spacing (see the
section below titled “Ambiguity related to survey design — Aliasing”). The

Figure 9. Achievable 100

accuracies for various amplitude
gravity surveys in terms measurable
10 Satellite
of shortest observable (mGal)
wavelengths (LaFehr and
Nettleton, 1967; Dransfield Surface-ship Airborne
et al., 2001; Fairhead and Underwater
Odegard, 2002; Nabighian 1/10
et al., 2005). Gradiometer


Shortest wavelength observable (km)

1/100 1/10 1 10 100

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lower left end of the curve labeled “Airborne” can be achieved by slower-fly-
ing helicopters, whereas the upper right end represents fixed-wing operations.
Under acceptable surveying conditions, land and borehole gravity oper-
ations can achieve resolutions between 1 and 20 μGal; underwater (station-
ary) gravity between 0.1 and 0.2 mGal; surface-ship gravity about 0.1 mGal
over wavelengths of less than 500 m; and airborne gravity (fixed-wing)
about 1 mGal over wavelengths of less than 2-km half-wavelength from an
airplane and more than 0.5 mGal over wavelengths of less than 1-km half-
wavelength from a helicopter.
These performance figures are hotly debated, and it is often difficult
to find comparable data from different companies because there are many
ways to present resolution performance. Free-air anomalies over the oceans,
based on satellite measurements, are approaching resolutions of 2 to 5 mGal
over wavelengths of 5 to 10 km (Sandwell et al., 2003). Generally, reso-
lution limits resulting from instrument and operational considerations (in
well-run field surveys) are of less concern than those imposed by the con-
straints of data reduction and interpretation (Chapters 5 and 6).

Ambiguity related to survey design — Aliasing

For proper characterization of a given anomaly, the anomaly has to
be properly sampled. As can be seen from Figure 10, reducing the spa-
tial sampling rate also reduces the high-frequency content of the data,
resulting in a completely distorted picture. This process, known as alias-
ing, occurs when an anomaly is measured at an insufficient sampling rate.
Aliasing is an effect that causes different continuous signals to become

Figure 10. Example

of aliasing the data
(marked with ×) as the
sample interval is halved
66  Fundamentals of Gravity Exploration
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indistinguishable (or “aliases” of one another) when sampled. Aliasing

can be avoided by sampling at a frequency at least twice as high as that of
the waveform.
If the sampling rate is Δx, then the shortest wavelength that can be
defined accurately is

TN = 2 Δx,
and correspondingly, the highest frequency can be defined as
fN = 1/2 Δx,

which is known as the Nyquist frequency. If the data contain frequencies

higher than the Nyquist frequency, all the higher frequencies are folded
back as lower frequencies. In other words, a frequency fN + Δf is folded
back around fN and will look similar to a frequency fN – Δf, i.e., these two
frequencies are aliases of each other. Filtering with an antialiasing filter4
before sampling the frequencies above the Nyquist frequency is another
way to avoid aliasing.
As mentioned in the section above titled “Gravity gradiometry,” a good
rule of thumb is to separate stations by no more than half the expected target
burial depths to avoid aliasing. In the presence of both deep and shallow
sources, station spacing is chosen based on the depth to shallow targets,
even though the target of interest is at a greater depth. Not choosing such
spacing will alias the anomaly from the shallower targets, which will then
appear as deeper ones.

 4An antialiasing filter is a filter used before sampling the signal, to restrict the
bandwidth of a signal to approximately satisfy the sampling theorem.
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Chapter 5

Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies

Equation 15 of Chapter 3 is, in theory, a unique formula for perform-
ing the forward calculation that produces the gravity anomaly caused by a
subsurface density distribution. On the right side of that equation, under the
integral, are the density r and the geometric components of an element of
mass to be summed over the entire geologic body. In this chapter, we exam-
ine the nature of density in exploration, its determination, and finally, how a
lateral density contrast is required to cause an observable anomaly.

Typical near-surface rock densities

In Chapter 2, we found that the mean density of the earth is about
5500 kg/m3, but the densities of rocks of general interest in exploration (near
the earth’s surface) are much lower —1600 to 2600 kg/m3 for sedimentary
rocks, 2200 to 3300 kg/m3 for igneous rocks, and 2400 to 3500 kg/m3 for
metamorphic rocks.
Figure 1 gives an example of the density range of commonly encountered
rocks in the shallow earth’s crust compiled from various field studies. We see
that some correlation exists between geologic age and density — older rocks
tend to be denser, but this is not a safe guideline in interpretive work. In gen-
eral, mafic intrusive rocks (e.g., basalts, gabbros, and so forth) are denser than
felsic intrusive rocks (e.g., granites, rhyolites, and so forth). In sedimentary
basins, the porosity in sands and shales tends to decrease with depth because
of compaction, resulting in a general increase in density with depth for those
rocks, whereas salt, which is almost incompressible, is nearly constant in den-
sity with respect to depth. Fluids are low in density: 1000 kg/m3 for water,
about 1030 kg/m3 for seawater, and 600 to 900 kg/m3 for oil.

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Density (kg/m3)

2000 2400 2800 3200



Paleozoic Salt

Precambrian Mica schist

Quartz diorite Peridotite
Carbonate rocks

Figure 1. Densities of rocks.

Densities of a wide range of rocks and of the minerals from which they
are composed are tabulated in several references, such as Clark (1966).
Density variation in rocks of exploration interest is generally not large.
However, gravity interpretation is sensitive to the selected density contrast,
which can vary substantially. Data have been compiled to show this range
in Figure 2a.
We can easily see that the total range of absolute density for most explo-
ration projects is only a factor of two or less, but anomalies are caused by
lateral density contrast, not absolute density. A quick study of the density
ranges suggests that density contrasts can vary over a considerably larger
range, even reversing sign in some cases, as shown in Figure 2b. The increase
in density for sands and shales with respect to depth and the nearly constant
density for salt discussed above are demonstrated in Figure 2b.
Salt density of about 2200 kg/m3 (pure halite is nearer 2150 kg/m3, but
salt is often mixed with foreign constituents) is higher than that of the most
recently deposited sands and shales, which have very little overburden, and
is lower at greater depths where compaction is increasingly significant. The
depth at which salt density equals that of the surrounding sands and shales is
known as the crossover depth. The density-depth curve for sands and shales
varies from location to location. Onshore in Texas and Louisiana, crossover
depth can be as shallow as 700 m. However, crossover depth is progres-
Chapter 5:  Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies  69
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Igneous and metamorphic




Soil and alluvium


1600 2000 2400 2800

Density (kg/m3)

b) 0

Depth (km)

4 Sand-
Crossover depth shale



1600 2000 2500 3000

Density (kg/m3)

Figure 2. (a) Density range for various rocks and for soil and alluvium.
(b) Density of sedimentary rocks as a function of depth over a salt dome.
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sively greater in offshore regions, perhaps reaching depths of 1300 to 2600

m, and it is not a single point but can exist over a depth range of 300 m or
more (which can be defined as the nil zone).

Density and porosity

The bulk density of a rock rb is a function of the matrix density rm,
porosity f, and the density of the fluid rf occupying the rock’s cavities:

rb = rm (1 – f) + rf f.(1)

The fluid density can range from very low values, near zero if substantial
gas is present, to about 1030 kg/m3 or higher for seawater or brackish water.
We plot the bulk density for a range of matrix densities and porosities in
Figure 3, assuming that the cavities are filled with water that has a density
of 1000 kg/m3. A typical matrix for a wide range of rocks would be 2650 kg/m3,
i.e., that of quartz (SiO2). The matrix densities of anhydrite, dolomite, and
calcite are higher, as shown, and those of gypsum, halite, and sulfur are
lower, as also shown in Figure 3.

3000 Water-filled holes Anhydrite

2800 Dolomite
Po Quartz
2600 sit
Bulk density (kg/m3)

2200 Gypsum

Halite 30

Sulfur 40


2000 2200 2400 2600 2800 3000

Matrix density (kg/m3)

Figure 3. Bulk density as a function of matrix density for varying porosity.

Chapter 5:  Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies  71
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Note that the zero-porosity line shows that in the case in which the rock
cannot contain any fluid, the bulk density is everywhere equal to the matrix
density, and as porosity increases, bulk density decreases. This is consistent
with the information in Figure 2, which shows that sedimentary densities
generally increase with depth in sedimentary basins.
By rearranging equation 1, we obtain porosity in terms of bulk, matrix,
and fluid densities:
ρm − ρb
ϕ= .(2)
ρm − ρ f

This relationship is shown in Figure 4 for the common matrix density appro-
priate to that of quartz (SiO2). In this figure, the fluid density ranges from 0
to 1000 kg/m3. Of course, for zero porosity (indicated at the top of the graph),

Matrix density = 2650 kg/m3


Porosity (%)


Fluid densities (kg/m3)

40 0 200 400 600 800 1000

1600 2000 2400 2600

Bulk density (kg/m3)

Figure 4. Porosity as a function of bulk density and fluid density for a matrix of
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no fluids exist in the rock, so the bulk density of the rock in that case is equal
to its matrix density, the point where all lines in the graph converge.
In addition to indicating the dependence of bulk density on the porosity
and fluid contained in the rock, Figure 4 prepares us for an important applica-
tion of the borehole gravity meter (treated in Chapter 6): In a reservoir where
the matrix and fluid densities are known or can be assumed within a range
from core samples and/or gamma-gamma/density logs, the bulk density (de-
rived from borehole gravity) of a large volume of rocks can be used as an in-
dependent means for estimating porosity and therefore fluid volume. This
determination can have a distinct advantage because its estimate is based on
a much larger part of the reservoir than estimates by other logging tools are.
In Figure 4, for a bulk density (shown on the horizontal axis) of about
2300 kg/m3, the porosity would fall between 13% and 21% (shown between
the dashed lines on the vertical axis), depending on the fluid density. In the
second case, a bulk density (horizontal axis) of slightly less than 2000 kg/m3
yields a porosity of slightly greater than 30% if the gas-saturated fluid has an
average density of 400 kg/m3.

Constituent densities
Although matrix density varies substantially, it is often taken in oil and
gas exploration to be 2650 kg/m3, or that of silicon dioxide (SiO2). Common
exceptions are salt (2150 to 2160 kg/m3) and dolomite (2870 kg/m3). Clastic
sediments have bulk densities which are a function of grain size and compo-
sition (typically quartz and feldspars) and of porosity. Although porosity is
not a factor for igneous and metamorphic rocks, mineral assemblage is, and
the wide range of constituent densities gives rise to the range in rock densi-
ties shown in Figures 1 and 2. Table 1 lists constituent densities confined to
the range of 2000 to 3300 kg/m3.
The bulk density of any rock is equal to the sum of its constituent densi-
ties, each multiplied by the percent volume (fn) of the rock it occupies:

ρb = ρ1ϕ1 + ρ2ϕ 2 + ρ3ϕ 3 + ……

Methods for deriving, measuring, and evaluating density

Six methods are used widely for determining the densities of rocks in
exploration projects: (1) laboratory measurements of cores, cuttings, and
surface rock samples; (2) logging tools using the gamma-gamma instrument;
(3) the Nettleton profiling technique for surface or water-bottom topogra-
phy; (4) borehole gravity; (5) conversion of seismic interval velocities; and
Chapter 5:  Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies  73
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Table 1. Densities for constituents in the range of 2000

to 3300 kg/m3. Derived from Clark (1966).
Constituent Formula Density (kg/m3)
Salt NaCl 2160
Gypsum CaSO4-H2O 2320
Orthoclase KAlSi3O8 2550
Nepheline NaAlSiO4 2620
Quartz SiO2 2650
Anorthite CaAl2Si2O8 2760
Muscovite KAl2AlSi3O10(OH)2 2830
Dolomite CaMg(CO3)2 2870
Wollastonite CaSiO3 2910
Aragonite CaCO3 2930
Lime olivine Ca2SiO4 2940
Anhydrite CaSO4 2960
Bromellite BeO 3010
Andalusite Al2SiO5 3140
Enstatite MgSiO3 3200
Olivine Mg2SiO4 3210
Diopside CaMg(SiO3)2 3280

(6) inversion, either unconstrained or constrained by seismic structure, well

points, and/or other geologic information.
Every one of these methods has its limits as to effectiveness. Cores,
cuttings, and rock samples can be damaged or unrepresentative or can vary
because of the difference between atmospheric pressure in the laboratory
and in situ pressure in the earth. The gamma-gamma logging tool is subject
to errors in calibration, effects of hole rugosity, fluid invasion, or formation
damage, and it is not effective in cased holes.
The Nettleton profiling technique (Figure 5) is often used routinely as
part of data reduction. Several densities are selected in the calculation of the
Bouguer anomaly (Chapter 6). If we can assume that the topography does
not correlate with subsurface structure (this is a risky assumption because,
in fact, the topography might owe its existence to such correlation), then we
select the density that leads to the least correlation between the computed
anomaly and topography.
The example shown in Figure 5 indicates a density for the topographic
rocks of 2200 kg/m3, suggesting little or no correlation. If, however, a posi-
tive correlation is appropriate because of subsurface structure, then a lower
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(mGal) 1800



Gravity profiles for
various densities


500 1000 1500
Traverse distance (m)

Figure 5. Nettleton profiling. After Nettleton (1971), Figure 5.

density for the topographic feature would be correct in this example. The
Bouguer correction requires the assumption of near-surface rock density
and is treated in Chapter 6.
If the topography (or bathymetry in marine work) does correlate with a
geologic feature below it, as would be the case of an erosion-resistant struc-
ture or low-density alluvium in a valley or drainage channel, it becomes a
matter for interpretation in selecting the most likely surface density. Even
so, Nettleton profiling can be a valuable source of surface-rock density
Four of the six methods for determining density are indicated in Figure 6,
depicting a hill with a well drilled on the left side of the illustration. The
Nettleton profiling technique is applied to the gravity data taken on the
topography. Density for the hill rocks is based on the assumption that no
correlation exists in this example, and therefore, the appropriate Bouguer
reduction density is 2300 kg/m3. The subsurface is assumed to be a simple
Chapter 5:  Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies  75
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Gravity anomalies
Density too low


Correction density
for no correlation

Density too high 2600






Core or Gamma- Borehole

cuttings gamma gravity
log meter

Figure 6. Four methods for determining rock density.

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layered earth from which the laboratory-derived densities for the cores and
cuttings obtained by drilling yield reasonably average densities, perhaps
slightly low in comparison with those of buried rocks.
The gamma-gamma-based formation-density tool also shows a high-
frequency display, and for gravity-interpretation purposes, it should be cali-
brated for the rock types present and averaged over larger vertical distances.
The borehole gravity method is treated in Chapter 7.
Perhaps the most effective relationship between seismic velocity and
formation density in sedimentary rocks is that of Gardner et al. (1974):

r  =  a V1/4,
where r is density in kilograms per cubic meter, and the value of a is 310
if the P-wave seismic velocity (V) is given in meters per second and is 230
if the velocity is expressed in feet per second. Gardner’s relationship is
derived from empirical laboratory studies, characterized in Figure 7 and in
a log-log plot in Figure 8. As with any method based on seismic velocity,


Seismic velocity (kft/s)



2000 2500 3000
Density (kg/m3)

Figure 7. The Gardner velocity-density relationship.

Chapter 5:  Rock Density and Gravity Anomalies  77
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Log of velocity
3.6 3.8 4.0 4.2 4.4



Bulk density (g/cm3)

Log of bulk density

Rock salt
Limestone 2.6

Anhydrite 3.0
5 10 20
Velocity (kft/s)

Figure 8. Velocity-density relationships (Gardner et al., 1974).

the resulting density values are subject to errors in stacking velocity that
sometimes occur because of energy dispersion, but the data also indicate
that lithology is a major determinant.
Because the Gardner curve conforms well with and is central to the lines
plotted for shales and sandstones (Figure 8), it is used extensively in gravity
interpretation in the oil and gas industry, especially in the Gulf of Mexico. In
Figure 8, lines of equal acoustic impedance (not shown), along which seis-
mic reflections vanish, would be perpendicular to the Gardner curve, which
is a straight line in the log-log plot. Thus, for some geologic boundaries,
such as between some sands and shales, we expect weak seismic reflections
or even none at all.
It is also true that sufficient density contrast to produce gravity anom-
alies might be lacking, reinforcing the need for multiple tools. Figure 8
shows both the utility and the difficulty in using a single density-velocity
relationship for all rock types. Figure 8 also indicates that substantial den-
sity contrasts can occur where seismic reflections are weak or that strong
reflections can occur where density contrasts are not detectable, such as at
the crossover depth with salt, as shown in Figure 2. Density and velocity do
not always vary directly.
The sixth method for determining and using density contrasts in inter-
pretive work is depicted in Figure 9, along with the Nettleton profiling
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Observed gravity

Topography or
Depth or elevation

Deep density

Seismic reflections
Seismic section

Stacking velocity Interval velocity Interval density

Figure 9. Schematic diagram showing gravity, topography, and seismic section.

technique discussed above. The schematic diagram in Figure 9 suggests

the multifold nature of the problem — all horizontal density contrasts pro-
duce anomalies that are superimposed. Shallow features produce relatively
steep gravity gradients, but there can be much overlap in the character of the
anomalies. Seismic reflections are, of course, measured in time, and some
discrepancy can result when converting them to depth (required for inver-
sion of the gravity anomalies for density).
Both constrained and unconstrained inversion of gravity anomalies can
be influenced by errors in anomaly identification, which we will examine in
Chapter 6. The conversion of seismic interval velocities to density is one of
the most important techniques in oil and gas gravity exploration, but it suf-
fers from a lack of universal applicability.

Definition of what causes a gravity anomaly

The difference in density between that of the rocks of interest and that
of the adjacent rocks, or Dr, is what is needed for making geologic interpre-
tations. Two simple examples in which density contrasts arise from struc-
tural uplift are shown in Figures 10 and 11.
In Figure 10, the four horizontal beds, before being uplifted, produce
an unchanging Bouguer gravity anomaly (Chapter 3) equal to 2pkr1t1 +
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2pkr2t2 + 2pkr3t3+ 2pkr4t4 (by the law of superposition), where r is bed

density and t is bed thickness. After uplift, a local anomaly is produced
depending on the geometry of the structure and the density contrasts, which
are the differences, r2 – r1,  r3 – r1,  r3 – r2,  r4 – r2, and r4 – r3.
Prior to uplift, the uniform horizontal beds provide an ideal geologic
environment for the seismic-reflection method, but with the absence of a

Gravity profile

Density contrasts for uplifted layered earth

ρ2 – ρ
ρ3 – ρ
2 ρ3 – ρ2

3 ρ4 – ρ2

ρ4 – ρ3

Figure 10. Density layers and contrasts in kilograms per cubic meter. After
Nettleton (1971), Figure 1.

ρ ∆ρ ρ

2200 kg/m3 200 2000

2200 0

2400 200

2400 0
2800 400

0 2800

Figure 11. Horizontal density contrasts resulting from fault.

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lateral density contrast, the gravity method is of no help. After uplift, the
geologic environment becomes more interesting and more problematic for
the seismic method (because of energy dispersion). It also becomes ame-
nable to the gravity method, as we will see in Chapter 6.
Without uplift or without a change in density within layers, no gravity
anomaly can occur. Both the magnitude of the uplift (geometry) and the
magnitude of the density differences are important factors in the production
of the anomaly, which is the sum of the superimposed effects with the con-
trasts indicated by the hachured zones in Figures 10 and 11.
Superposition of effects is also demonstrated in Figure 11, where a sim-
ple fault is depicted on the right side. The vertical extent to which a faulted
bed has the same density on both sides of the fault means that the absence
of density contrast produces no anomaly. However, where deeper beds that
have greater densities are upthrown against shallower beds that have lower
densities, an anomaly is produced from part of the subsurface structure, as
shown by the hachured areas in Figure 11.
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Chapter 6

Data Reduction

Lateral variations in the density of rocks cause variations in the gravity
field measured at the surface, and our central problem in gravity explo-
ration is to discover the nature of subsurface rocks, their constituents,
their structure, and their distribution. Toward this end, we use the theory
and tools developed and described in the first five chapters. In general,
the observed gravity value go is equal to the sum of the gravity anomaly
ga caused by the geologic masses we wish to study and the contribution
resulting from “noise,” gN . For present purposes, we will define the noise

gN = g p + gg + gi + gd , (1)

as the sum of all unwanted effects, where gp represents all the effects caused
by variations in position, elevation, speed of the instrument, and so forth,
for which standard corrections apply; gg represents geologic noise effects
caused by unknown or uncertain geologic features other than our target(s) of
interest (discussed in Chapters 7 and 8); gi represents untreated instrumental
noise, such as nonlinear drift components in the instrument; and gd includes
survey design noise (aliasing), as shown in Figure 10 of Chapter 4.
In the data-reduction phase of gravity work, our goal is to identify and
remove the effects that make up the first term on the right side of equation 1,
gp, and to evaluate the potential magnitudes of the last two terms, gi and gd.
The intended result is an anomaly field in which all the unwanted contribu-
tions to measured gravity have been partly eliminated and partly minimized
and understood.

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In establishing the rules, methods, and steps for data reduction in the
determination of gp, we refer to Chapter 2, where we defined three surfaces:
the topography and two equipotential surfaces defined as the ellipsoid and the
geoid (Figure 4 of Chapter 2). (A fourth surface, the imaginary ­projection
on which we establish latitude and longitude and perhaps other ­­­co­­­ordinates,
is generally understood as providing for a base map which gives ­geographic
orientation for the interpretation.)
The topography is the air-rock interface onshore and the water-rock
interface offshore, for which exist digital elevation models (DEMs) for
many surveyed areas. This surface, depicted in Figure 4 of Chapter 2, is
the actual surface on which we generally make measurements (onshore).
Offshore, we make measurements on the water bottom and on the sea sur-
face. (Measurements are also made in submarines by the military but not
generally in commercial exploration.) In addition, measurements are made
aboard aircraft and in boreholes.

Reduction of gravity survey data

We begin our discussion of infield reduction with typical land surveys.
Later, we will consider other types of data acquisition that require special-
ized treatment. All but a relatively small number of gravity stations continue
to be acquired by using relative-gravity meters, described in Chapter 4. This
means that prior to reducing the survey data, an already existing station for
which absolute gravity is known must be observed from a preexisting net-
work or carried to or near the new survey, thereby establishing the first base
station in the survey.1

Time variations
As we have seen, instruments have a characteristic drift resulting from
metal fatigue, generally but not always decreasing in value with time. Some
instruments drift more or less linearly with time; others can be erratic. Older
meters, like fine wines, often but not always improve with age and are

1 Although information on a large number of stations has been published (e.g.,

Woollard, 1958), with their principal facts and locations (many at airports), some
surveys are too remote and/or too urgently required to benefit from a tie with a
known or established network. In those cases, an arbitrary datum is used that is
independent of the world network. If available, absolute-gravity meters can be used
to establish the absolute-gravity value at one or more base stations.
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characterized by lower drift rates in their later years of operation. Quartz

springs (found in Worden and Scintrex instruments, for example) can be
notorious for producing very high drift rates.
Lacking clear reliability in drift behavior, instruments therefore must be
made to reoccupy the same station (typically a base station) and notice the
difference (the drift) in observed values. The shorter the time between base
readings, the more likely the drift can be removed accurately by assuming a
linear rate (or higher-order drift function using a larger number of repeated
stations) as a function of time. Thus, an observation is made at a base sta-
tion at the beginning and end of each loop of field stations to establish an
instrument-drift curve for that loop. In addition, it is also good field practice
to acquire at least one repeat station within the loop as a check on drift and
at least one repeat station from a different loop as an additional data point
for estimating survey accuracy.
As a good practice, surveying a loop should last no more than a maxi-
mum of one to two hours. Often, tears (abrupt step function changes) can
occur, caused by a bump to the meter, a rough transport between stations, or
extreme temperature changes. Although these changes are easily observed,
they are not so easily corrected, sometimes requiring the reoccupation of an
entire loop of stations.
In addition to instrument drift, gravity measurement is subjected to the
time variation of earth tides, the gravitational effects of which are a function
of both time and location. Most of this effect is caused by the well-known
positions of the moon and sun relative to the station location, but more com-
plicated secondary effects (much lower in amplitude) are also the result of
the diurnal deformation of the earth’s solid crust, ocean loading, and other
smaller contributions.
Although tidal gravity effects are calculated occasionally for gravity
survey work (Longman, 1959), this is not common practice. These effects
can be as much as 0.3 mGal over a six-hour period but are generally less,
and they fluctuate with an aberrant quasi-sinusoidal behavior as a function
of time, whose period is on the order of 12 hours (Figure 1). The tidal grav-
ity contribution to the measurement usually is removed effectively by the
same process that handles instrument drift — repeated observations at base
stations at reasonably close time intervals.
Instrument manufacturers calibrate every meter either over a known test
range or in the laboratory. This can result in a linear relationship to convert
the meter readings to milligals, or for meters with a worldwide range of
7000 mGal, it can result in a table of conversion factors. This conversion is
applied prior to obtaining the drift- and tidal-adjusted differences in gravity
between the base and field stations.
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Figure 1. Typical earth tide

effects at midlatitudes. 0.4






18 2 10 18 2 10
December 11 December 12
Time (h)

Latitude corrections
In Chapter 2, we studied the earth’s gravity field and its variations that
depend on shape and rotation. The expressions given in the section titled
“The standard International Gravity Formula” in Chapter 2 yield the value
of the earth’s gravity field at any point on the surface of the earth. This “nor-
mal” gravity field increases by about 5.3 Gal from equator to pole, and if not
corrected for, it will yield a north-south gradient in measured gravity data.
The latitude correction subtracts the normal field from measured gravity to
eliminate this gradient effect. In general, any of the expressions given in
“The standard International Gravity Formula” in Chapter 2 can be used, but
it is customary to use the expression

g = 978.031846 (1 + 0.00523024 sin 2 ϕ − 0.0000058sin 2 2 ϕ ). (2)

When working in a small project area, the above expression can be sim-
plified by differentiating it with respect to an element of arc, R dj, situated
on the surface of the earth (R being the radius of the earth) to yield a good
approximation of the normal gravity gradient,

g = 0.812 ⋅ sin 2φ mGal / km,

where j is the station latitude. To achieve an accuracy of 0.01 mGal, we

need to know the north-south location of our gravity stations to about
12.5 m, which is not difficult to obtain with modern Global Positioning
System (GPS) instruments (Geodetic Reference System, 1967).
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Free-air correction
Let us examine the observed gravity across a topographic cliff with no
density contrasts in the subsurface, as shown in Figure 2. Because the eleva-
tion does not change from negative locations to the cliff’s edge, observed
gravity is almost zero on the left side of the graph. Observed gravity begins
to decrease near the cliff because of the upward attraction of the cliff (both
this decrease and the increase shown for observations at the top of the cliff
are discussed below).
As elevation increases (to the right of the cliff, as shown in Figure 2),
gravity measurements decrease abruptly because of the increased distance
from the center of the earth. This requires a correction known as the free-air
correction (FAC).
Although an arbitrary datum is sometimes used in gravity data reduc-
tion, we assume here the more common approach in which mean sea level
is accepted as the datum. We can calculate that theoretical gravity g(p) at a

Distance (m) Figure 2. Observed

0 gravity across a top-
–3000 –2000 –1000 0 1000 2000 3000
ographic cliff with
no density contrasts
in the subsurface.
Vertical topography
Observed gravity
is exaggerated.
anomaly (mGal)





Vertical cliff
x (distance) Relief = 200 m
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point, p, which is h units above the datum by Newton’s law,

M M h h 2 ..... 
g(p) = k = k  1 − 2 + 3 − ,
( R + h )2 R2  R R2 
 h h2 
g(p) = g ( 0 )  1 − 2 + 3 2 − .....  , 
 R R 
g ( 0 ) − g ( p ) ≈ 2 g(0) , (3)
where g(0) is the gravity field on the datum and R is the earth radius.
The difference per unit change in elevation varies with latitude by about
0.02 mGal/m between the equator and the poles. Because both the earth’s
radius R and its theoretical gravity g(0) vary with latitude, we select a mean
for each, g(m) and R(m) in equation 3, and we obtain
g ( 0 ) − g ( p ) ≈ 2 g(m) ,
and the free-air correction term becomes

FAC = + 0.3086 mGal/m – (second-order term in equation 3,

      usually ignored).

With j as station latitude, the second-order term is usually written as

(0.00023 ⋅ cos2ϕ − 2 ⋅ 10 −7 ) mGal/m,

which is small at low elevations but can be large at high elevations. For exam-
ple, at 5000 m, the second-order term is 1.7 mGal. Although this term is not
usually incorporated into the free-air reduction, it is not difficult to do so.
The free-air correction can be very large. For example, at a 1000-m
­elevation, the correction is 308.6 mGal. If we require a precision of 0.01
mGal, then relative station elevations need to be known to about 3 cm,
which contributes substantially to the cost of a gravity station.
For completeness, we should also include in the free-air corrections the
atmospheric correction that accounts for the gravitational attraction of the
atmospheric masses above the gravity meter. This correction is necessary
because the value of normal gravity includes a component resulting from
the earth’s atmosphere, and without this correction, the gravity anomalies
will be underestimated.
Let us be clear that by making this reduction, we are not reducing the
data to a datum, i.e., obtaining at a fictitious station on the datum what we
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would have measured there if we had been able to do so. Instead, we are
simply accounting for the decrease in the measured value caused solely by
the station being farther from the earth’s center. In addition, we should be
clear that we are not accounting for local variations in the vertical gradi-
ent of gravity, which might be appreciable in the presence of large local
anomalous masses.

Bouguer correction
As the elevation increases, gravity measurements increase because of
the increased rock mass between the station and the survey datum; this
requires a correction known as the Bouguer correction. In Figure 2, at nega-
tive distance values to the left of the cliff, where the zero elevation is taken
to be the datum, both the free-air and the Bouguer effects are zero. How-
ever, at the higher elevation (positive horizontal distances), the Bouguer
effects cause the observed gravity to be greater than it would be if this effect
were not taken into account.
We have seen in Chapter 3 that an infinitely wide uniform section of
earth that has a thickness t, whose constant density is r, exerts a vertical grav­
itational attraction equal to

2p k ρ t,(5)

which is known as the simple Bouguer plate value. It is usually written as

0.04196 × ρ mGal/m.

This value is calculated for each station, and it is subtracted from the
measured value because the rocks between the station and the datum create
an increase in the measurement. The thickness t in equation 5 is the distance
between the station and the datum, usually taken to be the station elevation
where the datum is mean sea level. Often, in relatively flat terrain, this cor-
rection is the only accounting in data reduction for the rocks between the
station and the datum. In that case, the term simple Bouguer is applied to the
reduction process and to the resulting anomaly (see below).
If undulations in the earth’s surface are substantial, then an adjust-
ment called the terrain correction is also applied. High topography above
the station represents masses whose upward attraction at the station is not
included in the simple Bouguer term and causes a decrease in the measure-
ment; hence, its effect must be added to the measured data. Low topography
below the station represents mass deficiencies for which the simple Bouguer
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Figure 3. A terrain-correction
Terrain compartment


term overcalculated; hence, the effect of such masses must also be added to
the measured value. Topographic elevations are usually estimated in com-
partments (Figure 3) to yield the topographic relief that exists between the
station and the average elevation within the compartment.
Where the terrain is severe, a “slope,” or “wedge,” model is used in the
compartment in some cases, rather than a simple prism. For many decades,
terrain corrections were made manually by estimating topographic eleva-
tions in compartments within concentric rings with increasing radii from
each station. The popular Hammer (1939) charts include terrain cover-
age to only 21 km from the station, whereas the comprehensive Hayford-
Bowie system (Swick, 1942) extends to 166.7 km. In most cases in modern
exploration, a digital elevation model can be acquired and used as a basis
for comprehensive corrections that use a variety of computer software
Most of these programs represent the earth as a collection of vertical
prisms with a flat top and with increasing dimensions farther from the sta-
tion (Plouff, 1977). Terrain corrections are obtained by summing up the
gravitational attraction of these prisms at the location of each station. Often,
the DEM provides for inadequate definition of the topography for the inner
zones near the station. If the terrain is sufficiently severe2, it is necessary
to supplement the DEM with field estimates of the topographic relief near
the station. In some modern surveys, in areas where extreme topography
is not defined by available digital terrain models, additional topographic
information can be obtained by surveying the key topographic landmarks
near the gravity station. These data are then used as supplementary digital

2 Topographic irregularity is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, depending on the

terrain and on the desired survey accuracy. It is always good field practice to locate
stations away from abrupt changes in elevation if possible.
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We can estimate the severity of this potential problem by examining

the correction values tabulated for the inner zones of the Hayford-Bowie
system (Swick, 1942), the results for which are shown in Figure 4. Mul-
tiple errors for a given compartment-elevation error result from the variable
elevation relief (ranging, for these data, between 3 and 60 m) within each
zone. This chart is not intended as a means to determine actual errors but
rather is to help the survey planner determine the extent to which supple-
mentary elevations might be required. Larger errors can occur in very rug-
ged topography. For example, one of the four compartments in zone C, if
its elevation is in error by 62 m, can contribute an error of 4.7 mGal if the
total relief is 800 m.
Two exceptions to the rule to “always add the terrain correction” are:
(1) distant high topography that is actually below the station because of

Terrain-correction error by Hayford-Bowie zone

(Number of compartments/outer radius)

Zone B (4/68 m) Zone C (4/230 m) Zone D (6/590 m)


0 6 12 18
Terrain-compartment elevation error (m)

Figure 4. Terrain-correction error resulting from an error in determination of the

compartment elevation for three Hayford-Bowie inner zones. The actual total
error for the station would be the accumulated sum for all compartments in error.
Topographic rock density in the Swick (1942) table is 2670 kg/m3.
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earth curvature and (2) marine terrain corrections, which we will consider
below in the section on nonland reductions.
Earth curvature is taken into account in two ways: (1) in the direct
calculation of terrain effects, the computer algorithm should account (as
do the Hayford-Bowie tables, starting in zone J at about 9 km) for the
actual position of the topographic masses and deficiencies relative to the
station and (2) for the fact that the simple Bouguer plate does not curve
with the earth (this is the Bullard B correction treated in Appendix A of
this chapter).
In flat terrain, a constant error in Bouguer density will result in a con-
stant shift in the anomaly resulting from data reduction. However, it will not
affect the relative shape or gradient of the anomaly which, as we will see in
Chapter 7, are critical in interpretation. Variations in the density of the near-
surface rocks in flat terrain will produce anomalies that are not removed
in the Bouguer reduction process, but these can be incorporated into the
interpretation. If the topography is not flat, any error in Bouguer density will
result in unwanted artifacts of the data-reduction process, i.e., anomalies
that correlate with the terrain. Such correlations might help the interpreter,
as we have seen in Chapter 5, on rock densities.
As a general rule, one should always overlay a topographic map over a
Bouguer gravity-anomaly map and notice any correlations between them.
If the Bouguer density was chosen properly, there should be minimal corre-
lation between the two. In principle, one can use a variable Bouguer density
to overcome this problem (Vajk, 1956), but this is difficult to accomplish.
The simplest approach is to calculate separate Bouguer anomalies with a
few chosen densities and to use, in the various regions of the survey area,
the Bouguer map that correlates least with topography.

Gravity anomalies
Gravity measurements are very sensitive to changes in elevation, as can
be seen in Figure 2. The usual goal in exploration gravity work is to improve
our understanding of the subsurface. Thus, in the data-reduction process,
we would like to remove any effects that are not related to subsurface geo-
logic distributions. We would expect, therefore, because no subsurface den-
sity contrasts are present in Figure 2, that no anomaly would be present in
the results.
A gravity anomaly is defined as the difference between measured grav-
ity (i.e., station gravity after adjustment for time variations and network
ties) and theoretical gravity based on a defined earth model. The free-air
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anomaly is defined as

gfa = gs − λ + FAC.

The first term on the right side of the equation is station gravity, l is theo-
retical gravity, and FAC is the free-air correction, all defined in the previous
sections. Generally, this anomaly shows strong correlation with topography
even though the correction term, FAC, removes the direct effect of elevation
in terms of distance from the center of the earth.
For sea-surface surveys, the free-air correction is equal to zero (neglect-
ing the effect of tides), but the free-air anomaly nonetheless shows correla-
tion with bathymetry as a reflection of changes in the thickness of the water
column. We might think of the free-air anomaly as having been caused by
all the density contrasts within the earth, including the topographic rocks,
but not by the direct effect of changes in station elevation. The Bouguer
anomaly is defined as

gb = gs − λ + FAC − bc,

where bc is the Bouguer correction. If only the infinite plate (known as Bul-
lard A) is used in the reduction, this anomaly is called the simple Bouguer
anomaly. If terrain corrections (known as Bullard C) are added, it is called
the complete Bouguer anomaly.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, economics limited the ex-
tent to which terrain corrections were carried out. In the current era, with
­inexpensive computers and terrain models, every survey should be reduced
by using the complete Hayford-Bowie template, i.e., out to 167 km, and
curvature (Bullard B; see Appendix A of this chapter) should be applied
routinely. The Bouguer anomaly is usually the end product in data reduc-
tion, and it provides the starting point for most gravity interpretations.
The observed gravity depicted in Figure 2 is subjected to the correc-
tions defined here, and the resulting anomalies are shown in Figure 5. Both
the free-air and the simple Bouguer anomalies are near zero on the left
side, as we would expect for a region that has no subsurface density con-
trasts. However, at the cliff’s edge, the free-air anomaly takes a large step
up because of the abrupt change in elevation, and to the right, it increases
asymptotically to include the effect of the rocks between the stations and
the datum.
The simple Bouguer anomaly in this example, by contrast, is never
positive because (with the exceptions discussed above) the influence of ter-
rain features is negative. The simple Bouguer anomaly approaches zero to
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the right side because of the absence of subsurface density contrasts and
the increasing distance from the cliff edge. The flat zero-anomaly curve
is the complete Bouguer anomaly, which includes the terrain correction.
The effect of terrain reaches a maximum at the cliff’s edge and is indeed
very large, indicating the need for locating stations away from the abrupt
change in elevation and/or implementing additional surveying to define top-
ographic features with a precision consistent with the goals of the project.
The free-air anomaly does not overlay the simple Bouguer anomaly near
the base of the cliff because of the effect of interpolating between values at
stations (in this example) separated by 100 m.







Ground-surface elevation = 200 m
Ground-surface elevation = 0

–2000 –1000 0 1000 2000

Distance from cliff (m)
Figure 5. Gravity anomalies across a topographic cliff with no density contrasts in
the subsurface: FAA = free-air anomaly, SBA = simple Bouguer anomaly, CBA =
complete Bouguer anomaly; all are defined in this chapter. Vertical separation in
ground surface is exaggerated. Topographic rock density is 2500 kg/m3.
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Isostatic correction
On a global scale, Bouguer anomalies have a very strong inverse correla-
tion with station elevation: High/mountain stations yield Bouguer anomalies
superimposed over a long-wavelength negative background, whereas ocean
deeps produce Bouguer anomalies superimposed over a long-wavelength
positive background. From a geophysicist’s point of view3, this discovery
was made in 1749 by Pierre Bouguer during a French geodetic expedition to
measure the meridian arc. He found that at the base of the Andes, a plumb
bob was not deflected to the extent that calculations required. The idea fol-
lowed that at relatively shallow depths, isostatic equilibrium is attained such
that mountains are balanced by underlying mass deficiencies and ocean
depths by mass excesses.
Two major theories ensued, with many subsequent modifications to
each: (1) The Airy (1855) theory that mountains have roots and (2) the Pratt
(1855, 1859) theory that crustal densities vary horizontally. In both cases, a
depth of compensation occurs such that all columns from the earth’s surface
down to that depth will exhibit an equal amount of mass. In Figure 6, the
Airy theory is depicted by a variable depth to the base of the root, whereas
the Pratt system is depicted by a horizontally varying density function over-
lying a nearly planar depth of compensation.
Isostatic corrections were established by the geodetic community based
on modifications of these two basic models. Several models have been sug-
gested, the two most popular of which are the Airy-Heiskanen model and the
Pratt-Hayford model. The exact model used in the isostatic correction depends
on the relative amounts of compensation attributed to regional versus local
The resulting isostatic residual anomaly is generally much lower in
amplitude than the Bouguer anomalies. Isostatic anomalies have been
applied in the exploration industry occasionally, but not on a large scale.
Although it is often helpful in interpretive work to be aware of isostatic
effects, which can play an important role in identification of regional fields,
the corrections, which are based on uncertain models, are usually not applied
in exploration work over limited areas.
With a few exceptions (such as the Klamath Mountains in northern Cali-
fornia), the fact of isostatic equilibrium is well established. We can test this

3 Famous geodesist W. A. Heiskanen (Heiskanen and Vening Meinesz, 1958) sug-

gests that Leonardo da Vinci, among his many other accomplishments, suggested
that visible masses of the earth’s surface are in equilibrium. This is based on the
work of Delaney (1940).
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Densities in kilograms per cubic meter

2800 3000 2600 3000

2800 2900

3300 3300

Airy Pratt

ρc ρ1
ρ2 ρ3 ρ4


Constant density crust Variable density crust

Figure 6. Examples of isostatic compensation.

theory for broad regions without depending on any basic model for compen-
sation by observing that the average free-air anomaly is zero if the region is
in compensation. That is because (unlike the Bouguer anomaly, which is cor-
rected for topography) the free-air anomaly has both topographic and com-
pensating mass components. We see below that Gauss’ theorem ­(Chapter
3) requires that the average free-air anomaly be zero over a broad region.
As the depth of compensation increases, the gravity components associated
with the compensating masses have greater horizontal extensions, requiring
that the free-air anomaly be averaged over regions as broad as 200 km.
Relating the Bouguer anomaly to the free-air anomaly and the Bouguer
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gb = gfa – bc.

It follows with the averages:

gb = g fa − bc(7)

From Gauss’ theorem, assuming that the region captures half the flux, the
mass deficiency, Md, where gb is a negative number, is given by
1 n
Md = ∑ gb,iδ Si .
2p k i=1

The mass excess of the topographic rocks MT is

M T = ∑ δ hi ∆Si . (9)
i =1

Isostatic compensation requires that equation 8 is equal to equation 9, result-
ing in
2p k n 1 n

n i=1
δ hi = − ∑ gb ,i . 
n i=1

The left side of the equation is the definition of the average Bouguer
­correction, whereas the right side is the average Bouguer anomaly. Sub-
stituting equation 10 into equation 7 shows that the average free-air
anomaly approaches zero when taken over a broad region. Studies have
shown that over large areas, the free-air anomaly does have an average
of near zero.

Eötvös corrections
For land and underwater measurements, the meter is leveled and at rest.
In all moving vehicles, a phenomenon known as the Eötvös effect is created
because the motion of the instrument modifies the effect of the earth’s rota-
tion, which is already treated as if the meter were at rest. This can be studied
in Figure 7, depicting an earth that has rotation w.
The maximum outward acceleration caused by the earth’s rotation
occurs at the equator and is equal to Rw 2. At latitude j, the component of
outward acceleration normal to the axis of rotation is Rw 2 cos2j. We mea-
sure gravity in the direction of the plumb line (essentially toward the earth’s
center, which further reduces the rotational effect by cosj), resulting in the
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Rω 2cos2Φ
R cos Φ
Rω 2cosΦ

Rω 2

Figure 7. Rotating earth on which a moving instrument is located at latitude j.

effect Rw 2 cos2j. Now we want to know the change in acceleration resulting
from the earth’s rotation,  w :

da = 2Rw cos2 j dw.

The change in w in terms of the east component of motion of the meter is

dw = V/R cos j.

The Eötvös effect is

E = 2V w cos j sin a,

where V is the vehicle’s velocity and a is its direction with respect to north.
To this, we add the actual outward centrifugal acceleration acting on the
meter, V2/R, which is, of course, independent of direction but is nearly con-
stant in a given survey.
The Eötvös correction is quite large. For a ship traveling easterly at
1 knot (kn)4 at 45° north latitude, the correction is 5.4 mGal, whereas for a
ship traveling at 10 kn at the equator, the correction is 75 mGal.

41 knot (kn)  = 1 nautical mile/hour  = 1.852 km/hour.

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Marine reductions
Offshore gravity surveys require special attention so that corrections
unique to the marine environment account for the water layer and properly
tie with their land counterparts in the transition zone. Special corrections
might also be required for water-bottom surveys in deep lakes onshore or
in cases where the meter is on a tripod. In these cases, the datum is likely
to be below the water bottom, and the treatment of elevation must take this
fact into account. Figure 8 illustrates the onshore/offshore environment. The
onshore lake and tripod conditions are not shown but can be constructed by
placing the datum below h2.
The elevation of the land station is depicted at h1, the underwater station at
h2, and the surface-ship station at h3. The free-air and Bouguer corrections for
the land case are as described earlier in this chapter. However, note that for the
terrain-correction compartments that contain water, the appropriate density is
not that of the rocks but is the difference in density between the rock and water.
In some nearshore cases5, sea level fluctuates significantly, as depicted
by tidal displacement T. For the underwater location, h2 is negative, so that
the free-air and Bouguer corrections are reversed in sign with respect to land
locations (i.e., gravity stations are located below the datum). In addition,
a new term is introduced for the upward attraction of the overlying water
layer: 0.043 (h2 + T) mGal for seawater density. As in the case of the land
surveys, terrain corrections should take into account the proper density con-
trast of the rocks — water/rock contrast or air/rock contrast.
Surface-ship surveys have the distinct advantage of being located on
the datum. The free-air correction is zero, although this neglects the tidal
effects. Unfortunately, in the open ocean, accurate tidal behavior is usually
unknown, and the measurement errors that this creates must be treated in the
network adjustments discussed below.
It has been argued, largely by those in academic surroundings, that for
these offshore surveys, the free-air anomaly map is the preferable one for the
starting point in interpretation. In that case, we would treat the water layer
(which is generally quite well known) as part of the interpretation of the
subsurface. In the first major offshore survey jointly operated by more than
20 oil companies in 1965, industry voted (with minor argument) that the pri-
mary map would be of the Bouguer anomaly, and that has been the anomaly
of choice by industry ever since.

5In the Bay of Fundy and Cook Inlet, for example, some tides exceed 40 ft (12 m).
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Gravity meter

Surface ship
Actual sea level
Mean sea level


Figure 8. Locations of onshore and offshore gravity stations.

In the surface-ship case, the Bouguer correction is

2pkh3(ρ − 1.03) = 0.0419 mGal (ρ − 1.03) h3,

where h3 is the water depth recorded by the fathometer. This correction
is added to simulate a land survey where water is converted to rock. The
same issue regarding appropriate density as in the case of land surveys also
occurs here. We recall that all but the distant zones in land terrain correc-
tions require a positive addition to the simple Bouguer plate.
That is not the case in surface-ship surveys precisely because the off-
shore stations are acquired on a relatively flat surface and do not view the
bathymetry as a land station views the topography — on the undulating
observational surface that contains the anomalous topographic masses. In
addition, marine terrain corrections might be larger for comparable relief
in the rocks because the solid angle subtended by rocks at the ship location
can be appreciable. Offshore southern California, for example, exhibits ter-
rain corrections ranging from −25 to +25 mGal.

Appendix A
Bullard correction
The Bullard B correction is an adjustment for the fact that the simple
Bouguer plate contains mass laterally beyond the earth and does not contain
existing mass where the earth’s surface dips below the plate, as shown in
Figure A-1.
This correction for curvature (Bullard B correction) modifies the sim-
ple Bouguer plate value (Bullard A) to that of a cap that has a ­surface
radius of nearly 167 km and a thickness the same as that of the infinite plate
(station elevation using a sea-level datum). This is equivalent to removing
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Spherical cap:
166.735 km

Surface radius coincident with outer radius

of Hayford-Bowie terrain zones A through O

Simple Bouguer infinite plate

∞ ∞

Figure A-1. Geometry of spherical cap in relation to infinite Bouguer plate. After
LaFehr (1991), Figure 1.

all the plate above the earth’s surface and beyond 167 km, whether above
or below the earth’s surface (i.e., all of the slant-shaded zone in Figure
A-1) and adding the part of the cap below the plate (i.e., the solid black
zone). That part of the cap shown in stipple pattern is common to both the
cap and the plate and therefore does not enter into the curvature correction.
The sum of the stipple and black zones constitutes the entire spherical cap.
All dimensions are greatly exaggerated to clearly show the nature of the
correction. Following the methods described in Chapter 2, we can derive the
curvature correction B (for Bullard B),

B = 2p k ρ ( µ h − λ R ), (A-1)

where R is the earth’s radius to the station (Ro + h), and m and l are dimen-
sionless coefficients defined below. Equation A-1 can be used to calculate
the effect of curvature in the Bouguer correction.
The two dimensionless coefficients are μ and l:

 μ = 1/3h2  – h,
 l = 1/3{(d  +  fd  +  d   2)[(f − d  )2 + k]1/2 + p + m loge n/(f − d + [(f −d  )2 + k]1/2)},

where d = R0 /R, h = h/R, d = 3 cos2 a − 2, k = sin2 a, p = −6 cos2 a sin (a /2) +

4 sin3 (a /2), m = −3 sin2 a cos a, and n = 2[sin (a /2) – sin2 (a /2)]. R0 is the
normal earth’s radius to sea level, R is the earth’s radius to the station, and
h is the elevation of the station.
The angle alpha is the half angle subtended at the earth’s center by the
section of the earth’s surface at sea level for which the outer distance from
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the station is normally taken to be 166.7 km (or the outer radius of the Hay-
ford-Bowie zone O).
For more details about the exact solution, see LaFehr (1991). A simple
and generally quite adequate approximation to the Bullard B (BB) curva-
ture correction can be expressed as BB = Ah + Bh + Ch, where A × 10–3 =
1.46308, B × 10­7 = 3.52725, and C × 10–14 = 5.1.
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Chapter 7

Anomaly Interpretation Guidelines

and Limitations

Purposes of gravity surveys

We have studied the mathematical basis for the generation of gravity
anomalies (Chapter 3), gravity instrumentation that enables gravity surveys
and generally available surveying methods for obtaining them (Chapter 4),
density variations and methods for determining rock density (Chapter 5),
and the reduction of gravity data in static and dynamic settings (Chapter 6),
which is intended to eliminate often very substantial measured effects that
are unrelated to the gravitational sources we wish to analyze. Both relative-
and absolute-gravity measurements are available in gravity exploration.
Six generalized purposes of gravity surveys can incorporate one or both
methods of measurement:

1) determination of the earth’s shape

2) determination of missile trajectories, a military application now seldom
3) tidal and earth elasticity studies
4) other time-dependent applications (such as the monitoring of reservoirs)
5) determination of physical constants
6) determination of the subsurface geology or other characteristics of the
earth’s structure

The last of these, the study of the subsurface, requires identification

of the anomalies associated with the geologic sources of interest (anomaly
separation) and an explanation of those anomalies in terms of the geology

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that is the purpose of the investigation. We will now turn to those activi-
ties. In this chapter, we examine the guidelines and limitations of anomaly
interpretation. In Chapter 8, we examine inversion, a special case of inter-
pretation. In Chapter 9, we illustrate case histories to demonstrate practical
results of interpretation.
As we have seen in Chapter 3, three features of the causative bodies
must be present to produce observable anomalies: (1) sufficient density con-
trast with respect to the surrounding rocks, (2) sufficient geometric distribu-
tion (volume), and (3) sufficient proximity to the sensor. Each of these is
important in the evaluation of observed anomalies and in the simulation of
effects arising from proposed models of the subsurface geology.
Any quantitative interpretation of gravity anomalies in terms of sub-
surface mass distributions assumes some plausible geologic structure with
constant or variable density contrast. The parameters of the structure are
adjusted until its calculated anomaly agrees acceptably well with the ob­­
served anomaly. Inversion (see Chapter 8) can help to create an interpreta-
tion by using more complicated structures with variable density. In each
case, one needs first to calculate, at any observation point, the anomaly
caused by an arbitrary structure with any density distribution, a topic to
which we turn now.

Gravity calculations for an arbitrary model

Modern gravity exploration began in the 1930s, and for the first sev-
eral decades, it relied on a combination of characteristic curves for many
simple models and “dot charts” for manually adding the accumulative grav-
ity effects of irregular bodies. The charts typically were based on using
the method of solid angles defined in Chapter 3. For complicated geologic
structures, manual application could be very time-consuming. In the 1950s,
computers were beginning to change the methodology by direct calculation
of the gravity effects of polygonal and other simple bodies.
Then in the 1960s, grid-based systems were introduced for the forward
and inverse modes of computation. Computers were relatively slow then,
and computer memory was limited and expensive. It was important to take
these limitations into account when using early methods. Although com-
puter memory and speed are of less concern in the early twenty-first century,
they are not irrelevant as larger and more ambitious projects are undertaken.
A volume of mass can be approximated by a collection of rectangular
prisms, as shown in Figure 1. For points outside the source region, the ver-
tical component of the gravity contribution from each prism can be calcu-
lated using expression 19 of Chapter 3, and the total anomaly is obtained
Chapter 7:  Anomaly Interpretation  103
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P (x, y, z)

Figure 1. Calculation of the gravity anomaly of a given target by superimposing

the response from rectangular prisms. The smaller and more numerous the
prisms, the more closely the sum of their effects will match the actual effect of the
causative body.

by adding (superimposing) the attraction from each individual prism. How-

ever, expression 19 of Chapter 3 requires the calculation of many logarith-
mic, arctangent, and square-root terms, which makes it cumbersome if not
impractical for day-to-day applications of gravity anomalies caused by sin-
gle bodies. Some papers in the geophysical literature have helped to address
this problem (e.g., Holstein, 2003; Nabighian et al., 2005).
A simpler approach is implemented by Talwani and Ewing (1960) by
assuming that the target can be approximated by a stack of infinitely thin
laminae (Figure 2). In this approach, one first obtains the response of each
lamina by integrating over its surface and then sums up (integrates) the
response from each lamina in the vertical direction. To simplify calculations,
each lamina is approximated by a polygonal shape, and the surface integral
over the lamina is reduced to an integral along the perimeter of the polygon.
Plouff (1975) expands the above technique by using laminae of finite
thickness with vertical sides and whose top and bottom surfaces also were
represented by a polygonal shape. This approach was used widely in calcu-
lating terrain effects for gravity data.
Barnett (1976) develops an analytical method for calculating the gravi-
tational attraction of a homogenous polyhedron-shaped 3D body. In this
method, the body is represented as being composed of triangular facets,
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a) 3D view


b) Plan view
rn + 1


Figure 2. Approximation of attraction of (a) a body by a stack of laminae, each of

which is then approximated to have (b) a polygonal shape.

and the gravitational attraction of the body is obtained by integrating over

each facet and then by summing up the individual results. Because the inte-
gral over each facet can be calculated analytically and we need fewer facets
than laminae, this approach is much more cost-effective in calculating the
response from single bodies.
Okabe (1979) develops a similar approach for calculating gravity
anomalies. Pedersen (1978) develops frequency-domain expressions for
potential fields from arbitrary 2D, 2.5D, and 3D bodies, and those expres-
sions are simplified by Hansen and Wang (1988) for arbitrary 3D bodies. In
Hansen and Wang’s formulation, the gravity field of a polyhedron can be
expressed in the frequency domain as a summation over the N vertices of
the polyhedron. In the formulation of Hansen and Wang (1988), the contri-
bution of each vertex to the model can be computed separately without first
Chapter 7:  Anomaly Interpretation  105
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decomposing the body into facets. The geometry of the body is described as
a collection of vertex coordinates and set of points which group the vertices
joined by edges.

The fast-Fourier transform for calculating gravity effects

With dm = r dV and with volume dimensions of dx, dh, and dz, the
general form for the vertical component of attraction in the 3D case is given
by equation 15 of Chapter 3:
d  1 ρ (ξ , η, ζ ) (ζ − z ) dξ dη dζ
gz ( x , y, z ) = k ∫ ρ   dV = k ∫ ,
dz  r  3

(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
V V 2 2 2 2

where the integration is carried out over the volume of the causative body
and r 2 = (ξ − x )2 + (η − y)2 + (ζ − z )2.
Expression 15 of Chapter 3 can be written in general as

gz ( x , y, z ) = ∫ ρ (ξ , η, ζ ) G
z ( x − ξ , y − η , z − ζ ) dξ dη dζ , (1)


d  1 ζ−z
Gz ( x − ξ , y − η , z − ζ ) = k   =k (2)
dz  r 
(ξ − x ) + (η − y) + (ζ − z ) 
2 2 2 2

is known as the Green’s function and represents the vertical gravitational

attraction at the observation point (x, y, z) resulting from a point mass of unit
density located at x, h, z. Similar Green’s functions also can be defined for
the gx and gy components of gravitational attraction.
Generally, the density function is nonzero only over a confined area of
the half-space, i.e., that represented by volume V. Because the density func-
tion is zero outside volume V, we can extend the limits of integration over
the entire half-space without any loss of generality and can write the above
expression as
∞ ∞ ∞

gz ( x , y, z ) = ∫ ∫ ∫ ρ (ξ , η, ζ ) G
−∞ −∞ z
z ( x − ξ , y − η , z − ζ ) dξ dη dζ . (3)

Expression 3 represents a convolution integral between the density func-

tion r and the Green’s function Gz. From Appendix A, “Fourier Trans-
form,” at the end of this book, a convolution in the time domain leads to
a multiplication in the frequency domain. Taking the Fourier transform of
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equation 3, one obtains

F( gz ) = ∫ F[ ρ ( x , y, ζ )] F [Gz ( x , y , ζ − z )] dζ , (4)

where the Fourier integration is carried out over the x-, y-coordinates. To pro-
ceed further, we need the Fourier transform of the Green’s function. We have
∞ ∞
e − i ( u x + v y ) dx dy
F[ Gz ( x , y , ζ − z ] = k (ζ − z ) ∫ ∫ 3 =
−∞ −∞
[ x + y + (ζ − z) ]
2 2 2 2

cos ux cos vy dx dy
= 4 k (ζ − z) ∫ ∫ 3.
0 0 [ x 2 + y 2 + (ζ − z ) 2 ] 2

The integration over x can be carried out using Gradshteyn and Ryzhik
(1980, p. 249, formula 3.773.6) to yield

K1 [u y 2 + (ζ − z )2 ]
F[ Gz ( x , y , ζ − z ] = 4 k (ζ − z ) u ∫ cos vy dy,
o y 2 + (ζ − z )2

where K1 (x) is the modified Bessel function of order 1.

We can now carry the integration over y using Gradshteyn and Ryzhik
(1980, p. 756, formula 6.726.4) to yield
u2 + v 2
F[ Gz ( x , y, ζ − z ] = 2 π k e − (ζ − z ) . (5)

With equation 5, expression 4 becomes

∫ F[ρ(ζ )]e
u2 + v 2 −ζ u 2 + v 2
F( gz ) = 2π ke z dζ . (6)

Expression 6 shows that for the most general case, we divide the body into
horizontal slices, take the Fourier transform of the density function for that
slice and, after weighting it by an exponential function dependent on the
depth of the slice, we sum up the results. To obtain the vertical component of
gravitational attraction, we then have to inverse-transform the above result.
Expression 6 yields a closed-form solution only for relatively few sim-
ple bodies, e.g., spheres (monopole), cylinders (horizontal line), vertical
lines and ribbons, and so forth (Blakely, 1995). The numerical calculations
required to carry out the integrations in expression 6 for the general case
are relatively cumbersome. At present, the preferred method is the direct
Chapter 7:  Anomaly Interpretation  107
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evaluation of expression 15 of Chapter 3 using the methods developed in the

section above titled “Gravity calculations for an arbitrary model.” In some
special cases, e.g., reservoir simulation, the Fourier method does have some
advantages over the direct evaluation of expression 15 of Chapter 3 and is
used preferentially.
In one case, however, the Fourier-transform approach is definitely pref-
erable to the direct evaluation of expression 15 of Chapter 3. Parker (1973)
develops a technique for calculating the gravitational attraction of a source
layer of constant density with uneven top and bottom topography. Such a
model is useful in calculating isostatic residual gravity anomalies, in esti-
mating the effect of bathymetry or sedimentary basins, and so forth.
Following Parker (1973), we first develop the theory for a layer with a
flat bottom located at z = 0 and an arbitrary topography given by h(x, y, z) > 0
(Figure 3). For convergence purposes and because we can model only a
finite area of terrain, we will assume that the layer vanishes outside some
finite domain.
Letting a position in space be represented by the vector r = (x, y, z)
and with the z-axis positive upward, we can write the gravitational potential
resulting from this layer as

∞ ∞ h(r)
dV dξ dη dζ
U ( x , y, z ) = k ρ ∫ = kρ ∫ ∫ ∫ . (7)
r −∞ −∞ 0 ( x − ξ ) + ( y − η)2 + ( z − ζ )2

Taking the Fourier transform with respect to x, y, we obtain, after changing

the order of integration,
∞ ∞ h(r) ∞ ∞
e − i ( ux + vy ) dx dy
F[U (r )] = k ρ ∫ ∫ d ξ dη ∫ dζ ∫ ∫ . (8)
−∞ −∞ 0 −∞ −∞ ( x − ξ ) + ( y − η) + ( z − ζ )
2 2 2

z P (x, y, z)

z = h (r)

Q( , , )


Figure 3. Gravitational potential resulting from a source layer with uneven top
and with flat bottom.
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After making the change of variables s = x – x and t = y – h, we can

use Gradshteyn and Ryzhik (1980, p. 419, formula 3.754.2; p. 736, formula
6.677.5) to obtain for the last integral
∞ ∞ u2 + v 2
e − ( ux + vy ) dx dy e − i ( z −ζ )
∫∫ ( x − ξ )2 + ( y − η)2 + ( z − ζ )2
= 2π e − ( uξ + vη )
u2 + v 2
. (9)
−∞ −∞

Introducing equation 9 into equation 8, we obtain

∞ ∞ h(r) u2 + v 2

∫ ∫e ∫
− z u2 + v 2 − i ( uξ + vη )
F[U (r )] = 2π k ρe d ξ dη dζ . (10)
−∞ −∞ 0 u2 + v 2

The integral over z can be performed analytically to yield
∞ ∞ 2 2
eh(r ) u + v − 1
∫ ∫e
− z u2 + v 2 − i ( uξ + vη ) (11)
F[U (r )] = 2π k ρe dξ dη.
u2 + v 2
−∞ −∞

Letting p2 = u2 + v2 and after expanding the last exponential function above

in a Taylor series, we obtain
∞ ∞ ∞
pn − 2 n
F[U (r )] = 2π k ρe − z p ∫ ∫e
− i ( uξ + vη )
∑ n!
h (r ) dξ dη. (12)
−∞ −∞ n =1

The above expression now contains the Fourier transform over various pow-
ers of h(r). We can then write

pn − 2
F[U (r )] = 2π k ρe − z p ∑ F [h n (r )]. (13)
n =1 n!

We have gz = and, after reverting to a z-axis directed downward in
the direction of gravitational attraction, we finally obtain the gravitational
attraction of a source layer with uneven top and flat bottom topography as

pn −1
F[ gz )] = 2π k ρe − z p ∑ F [h n (r )]. (14)
n =1 n!
It is easy to see that the above expression can be generalized imme-
diately for a constant-density source layer with uneven top and bottom to

pn −1
F[ gz )] = 2π k ρe − z p ∑ F [h n (r ) − d n (r )], (15)
n =1 n!
Chapter 7:  Anomaly Interpretation  109
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where dn(r) represents the bottom topography. Parker (1973) shows that this
series converges fastest if the z = 0 plane is selected midway between the
minimum values of h(r) and d(r). If the density function is not constant
between the top and bottom surfaces, the above expression can be general-
ized as

pn −1
F[ gz )] = 2π ke − z p ∑ F [ρ (h n (r ) − d n (r ))]. (16)
n =1 n!
This formulation has proved to be extremely useful in calculating isostatic
corrections (see Chapter 6) and estimating the gravity anomaly of sedimen-
tary basins.
It is easy to see that for a Bouguer slab, i.e., h(r) = h = constant, expres-
sion 14, after taking the inverse Fourier transform, reduces to the Bouguer
slab formula gz = 2pkrh.

Anomaly shape
A comparison of anomaly shape for models that have different charac-
teristics can be examined in Figure 4. The bottom of the vertical 2D dike
is set arbitrarily at 50 units (to avoid the problem of an infinite maximum