Sedimentology, Brian Ricketts @KiwiGeolog: A Day in the GeoLife Series

Dr. Brian Ricketts, sedimentologist/hydrogeologist

Dr. Brian Ricketts, sedimentologist/hydrogeologist

NAME:  Brian Ricketts

CURRENT TITLE:  Semi-retired consultant

YEARS OF EXPERIENCE:  40+

AREA OF EXPERTISE:  Sedimentology (classics, carbonates, volcaniclastics), sequence stratigraphy, sedimentary basin analysis, hydrogeology, basin-scale fluid flow, geochemistry, well-site geology, wireline log interpretation, project management, university teaching, consulting.

EDUCATION:  I have 3 degrees (two in New Zealand, one in Canada). My MSc thesis dealt with Quaternary sediments in northernmost New Zealand (originally a Kiwi); my PhD dealt with Precambrian sediments in Hudson Bay, Canada.

MEMBERSHIP:  Membership in geological societies is pretty important for most scientists. One that I’ve been involved with is the Society for Sedimentary Research (SEPM) since 1978. I’m currently on the SEPM Council.

What’s your job like?

My present status is semi-retired, which means that I work (for remuneration) when I feel like it, if work is available, and volunteer for things; it’s a very pleasant state to be in. So it’s more relevant to talk about what my job was like.

Over the last 40 years, I have had a few jobs, all centered broadly around sedimentology, sedimentary basins, and hydrogeology, and all of which I have loved. The best jobs were those that involved field work. For the 15 years I was with the Geological Survey of Canada, I had an opportunity to spend my summers (6 to 10 weeks at a time) in places I would otherwise never have walked — the Yukon, Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg Islands in the Canadian high Arctic and the northern Cordillera in British Columbia. I was given a secondment to the Hungarian Geological Survey in Budapest for several months in 1992 — the year the Berlin Wall was finally demolished. My family (with 3 young kids) were provided a small house on the Pest side of the Danube. It was a brilliant 4 months. Over all these years, I was involved in local and international research groups that also gave me an excuse for further travel and collaboration, especially places like the Netherlands, Poland, Hungary, United States of America, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

I returned to New Zealand after almost 22 years in Canada and taught at Waikato and Auckland universities for 9 years, again mostly sedimentary basin and hydrogeology studies. Teaching at any institution is, I think, a privilege; it is incredibly satisfying, frequently challenging, and often heart-warming to witness the intellectual and social development of students. You find yourself getting completely immersed in post-graduate projects. But after 9 years, I needed another change and decided to do consulting, on my own. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years, and this has included a bit of everything from onshore and offshore oil exploration in New Zealand and Australia, geothermal and groundwater in New Zealand, field work in the Chilean Atacama (the mountains – this is spectacular country; flamingos everywhere in the summer), plus work on CO2 sequestration. So this stage of my career has been pretty varied, running a small business (just me) is always fascinating and challenging.

So what was my job like – there is virtually nothing over the last 40 odd years that I would change.

sedimentology

Salar Grande (gypsum, halite), northern Chilean Atacama, about 4000 meters above sea level. The volcanic cones are mostly Miocene. @2015 Brian Ricketts

What’s a typical day like?

There is no such thing as a “typical day,” so I’ll chose something related to fieldwork in the Canadian Arctic, mainly because it left an indelible imprint on my psyche. Ellesmere Island is stunningly beautiful, remote, and still virtually untouched. Field seasons usually revolved around a Geological Survey base camp that had a helicopter and crew, a camp manager and cook, and very makeshift showers. Base camps were strategically located in a fiord close to a good water supply. A few days at base camp were always a welcome respite. However, for most of the summer, my field assistant and I (a student who more often than not took on a project for Honours or MSc theses) would “chopper” to a fly-camp from which we would do our mapping and measuring (the camp consisted of just the two of us). A typical fly-camp day began with breakfast cooked over a small gas stove, as much coffee as one could pour down one’s throat, and a 7 a.m. radio schedule that was our only tangible link with the rest of the world. The day (24 hours of it) consisted mainly of walking geological sections, measuring and recording stratigraphic data (in a book – no iPads back then), taking hundreds of color and black and white photos (for developing – no digital then either) and returning to camp in time for the 7 p.m. radio call (miss two calls in a row and the helicopter would come looking). Evenings usually revolved around cooking dinner (you really get sick of freeze-dried…), and sorting the days data, samples and so on. So days were long, at least 12 hours, frequently 18. After a few weeks of this, we would pray for bad weather as an excuse to sleep in. But weather in the eastern Arctic is usually very good, so respite days were few and far between. The upside, of course, is that one can cover a lot of ground on foot, see Arctic hares, foxes, wolves, caribou, owls and sea birds, and musk ox; fortunately, there were no polar bears (but the rifle was always handy). On more than one occasion, we had our sleeping tent collapse on us because foxes would chew the guy ropes. The Arctic flora is beautiful. The tallest trees are 5 centimeters high but spread 3 meters (m) across the ground. Some days, we would return to the field after dinner and work until midnight.

sedimentology

Tanquary Fiord, Ellesmere Island. The Geological Survey of Canada base camp is barely visible on the far side of the large fan-delta. @2015 Brian Ricketts

What’s fun?

There are two great things about doing science – the first, and probably most important, is meeting and collaborating with people who are just as excited as you are about their projects, or people who simply enjoy working in some capacity with you. When I was working in the Chilean Atacama (base camp at 4000 m above sea level), one of the cooks in camp was a fairly rough-looking character, but he had a magnificent singing voice that usually was tuned to opera or Chilean folk songs.

The second is having one of those eureka moments, when you come across the answer to a geological puzzle. Actually there is a third – having the manuscript that elaborates the puzzle accepted for publication.

What’s challenging?

Field work can be physically demanding, but it’s a bit like going for a great hike and looking over the journey you’ve just struggled through; ultimately it’s very satisfying.

Some of my work was on the ‘dirty’ side of things with respect to potential emissions; there can be inherent moral conflicts with personal views of climate change or resource renewability, but geologists also tend to be practical folk. In the end, each of us needs to make a moral judgement and balance that against everyday necessities like putting food on the table for one’s kids. For me, there was a semblance of balance by also working on groundwater protection and renewable geothermal energy. I also grow organic kiwi fruit, so that helps to assuage my conscience.

What’s your advice to students?

I don’t like giving advice, but I do like discussing options and asking questions of others who are making decisions about, well whatever really. I decided quite early in my career that I liked variety, so I probably ended up being a jack-of-all-trades – whether I became a master of any trade in particular doesn’t seem that important for me, but I’m sure it is important to others.

sedimentology

Stromatolites from the Belcher Islands, Hudson Bay, about 2 billion years old. @2015 Brian Ricketts

3 Comments

  1. Jan Warusavitharana

    Wow that is an amazing amount of different fields within geology to have worked in. That is truly inspirational!
    I myself are in the midst of transitioning from petroleum geology to hydrogeology/hydrology. But it is tough early in your career to get that job without the educational background. I see you did that by sticking to being a sedimentologist.
    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Btw, love the stromatolites! They are much prettier than the ones I studied for my research 🙂

  2. Brian Ricketts

    Hi Jan. Thanks for the comment.
    At the time I began working in hydrogeology (early 90s) many hydro graduates were entering the discipline with little or no field experience. They were really good at numerical modeling but were not always able to relate model boundary conditions to the real world. Coming from a seds background was for me a good approach.

    As far as getting that job you spoke of, sometimes there is a bit of luck, but it’s what you do with that luck, and your skills and enthusiasm, that counts.

    All the best
    Brian

    1. Jan Warusavitharana

      I see. Makes sense. Thank you for that info Brian.

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