Tim Kearsey - a curious sedimentologist... by Hazel Gibson

Hi, I’m Hazel Gibson, a PhD researcher from Plymouth University, who is interested in what people think about geology and how that affects how we as geoscientists communicate it. During July I was up at the British Geological Survey speaking to the scientists about their work, what makes them passionate about it and why they think it’s important to us. The following is a series of short 'people posts' about the real faces behind the BGS.

 Dr Tim Kearsey is interested in history. So much so, that initially he didn’t want to be a geologist at all. “I was interested in archaeology first” he told me. “I even worked as a volunteer digger when I was at school!” But while studying for his A-levels in history, biology and geography, he was lucky enough that his school offered an AS Level in geology. “I realised everything that I liked in geography was actually geology, so I switched.” After completing his A-levels he started a degree in geology, reasoning that he could always transfer those skills to archaeology, but that archaeology wouldn’t transfer to geology. It was during his undergraduate degree that he realised that geology and specifically sedimentology, helps you to look at a landscape and see something completely unexpected – the past!

Tim is now  a sedimentary geologist at BGS’s Edinburgh office. This means that he has a very varied job, which includes traditional geological mapping; looking at mathematical uncertainty in geological 3D models and maps; working with scientists overseas to improve their national geological maps and getting stuck in to some really interesting research of his own. At the moment Tim is looking at Tetrapods, which if you don’t know, are the group of fossils that represent the very first four limbed creatures. Tim is a part of a research group called the TW:eed (Tetrapod  World: early evolution and diversification) consortium that also includes palaeontologists from Cambridge University and the NationalMuseum of Scotland; sedimentologists from Leicester University and palynologists (scientists who look at pollen) from Southampton University. It’s a really exciting project because the people involved are looking at the early evolution and diversity of these amazing creatures, but not just at the organisms themselves – they are trying to discover the whole picture of what it was like when the tetrapods were alive! This is where Tim comes in. His speciality is looking at past environments using fossilised soils, which is a really tricky thing to do! Tim uses fossilised soils contained in sedimentary rock to help him reveal lost terrains, by examining how the sediment that was deposited at the time has been recorded in the rocks, and what clues that can give us to what it was like. “Sedimentology is the archaeology of the landscape” Tim says, and it can tell us a surprising amount of things that you may take for granted...

                              Tim loves looking at fossilised soils...                           
For example – when we think of dinosaurs, I’m sure many of us picture a herd of gigantic creatures wandering a grassy plain, but that is impossible, because grass didn’t evolve until the dinosaurs had become extinct. And did you know that before trees evolved there were no meanders in rivers?! It boggles the mind. But it’s not all delving into lost landscapes for Tim. One of his favourite things about working for the BGS is the way that his job combines academic style research, with practical work – that makes you feel that you are making a difference. Another of his primary projects is to do with how other people – especially engineers – use geological maps and the problems that they can have with them. One of the things he told me about recently is how he wants to figure out a way to help engineers use geological maps more effectively and thinks that this has a lot to do with how non-geologists use maps. Think about it, if you wanted to go to London, you would look on a map, follow the directions and London would be there at the end of your journey. But a geological map doesn’t always show you where things definitely are, just where they PROBABLY are based on the current available evidence. They don’t even show you where one type of rock is sometimes either – most maps use formations, which are a group of rocks. It can make things pretty confusing!!

This video shows one of the 3D models that Tim has helped to create.

Luckily Tim is not alone in wanting to find a solution to this problem; many scientists at the BGS are trying to diversify our geological maps for whoever wants to use them. Tim has said to me in the past; “one of the hardest things is trying to explain some ideas to a non-geologist we can forget that, like me before I did geology A level, most people don’t really know what ‘geology’ is. We must also remember we talk about a world underground and a time long ago that is outside many people's experience and is quite alien to them.” But with his work unveiling the vanished environments of millions of years ago, helping other scientists to improve their maps or developing new ways for us to look at the geological information we already have, I think Tim will show many more people how to access our vast stores of geological knowledge in their own way.