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Geoscientist Thomas Chidsey: Going the Extra Mile

Thomas Chidsey quietly goes about his work at the Utah Geological Survey, rarely making any headlines or seeking notoriety, yet this dedicated and humble geoscientist carries out those ‘extras’ that clearly set him apart from his peers.
This article appeared in Vol. 17, No. 2 - 2020

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Geoscientist Thomas Chidsey: Going the Extra Mile

After working with Thomas Chidsey and using his knowledge of a variety of geologic subjects, I realized that he is a special, one-of-a-kind person. Yet, when co-worker Michael Vanden Berg, Energy and Minerals Program Manager at the Utah Geological Survey (UGS), related the following anecdote to me, I knew I had to find out more about Tom and tell his story.

  • Tom Chidsey at ‘The Wedge’ overlook in the San Rafael Swell of east-central Utah. © Michael Chidsey, Sqwak Productions Inc.

“I met up with Tom Chidsey in London at the ‘Microbial Carbonates in Space and Time’ symposium that was held in June, 2013 at The Geological Society,” Michael explained. “We were there to deliver two posters, one on the Great Salt Lake and one the Green River Formation covering microbial carbonates. Chidsey brought an entire suitcase full of cores to display as well as little slabs of microbialites and 75 bags of oolitic sand from the Great Salt Lake to hand out at the conference. From Utah and through the London tube to Piccadilly Circus, Tom lugged this heavy suitcase to the conference. I have to say it was a smashing success; everyone loved the little giveaways and viewing the core.” 

This is just one example of what a dedicated geoscientist and educator Thomas Chidsey really is; a person who always goes above and beyond, which lifts him into a rarified space well above the crowd.

Early Adventures of Thomas Chidsey

Studying the microbial carbonates in the Great Salt Lake, Utah; Tom and co-authors were able to shed light on the formation of these microbial mounds that are similar to important reservoir targets offshore Brazil and in other petroleum basins around the world. © Michael Vanden Berg, UGS. Growing up in the Wilmington, Delaware and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas, Tom was a western movie fan and always dreamed of heading west. Being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, he could not help notice that Church-owned Brigham Young University (BYU) could achieve one of those dreams. Located in Provo, Utah, along the beautiful Wasatch Mountain Range just south of Salt Lake City, Tom ventured west to get his education. 

“I had no idea of what I was going to major in when I started school,” says Tom. “A sophomore in my dorm recommended I take a non-science geology course called ‘Life of the Past’. This course was to fulfill a general physical science requirement for my first semester just because ‘it was easy’. Just after two months into the course, my search for a major had ended, changing my life forever.”

“After taking this introductory geology course,” says Tom, “I went to the office of the lecturer, Dr. Morris Petersen, who also happened to be the Chairman of the Geology department and told him I wanted to major in Geology. To my surprise he replied, ‘we would love to have you major in geology!’ Dr. Ken Hamblin introduced me to the geology of the Grand Canyon and Dr. Lehi Hintze eventually became my thesis advisor. Most of my professors are gone now but all had a great influence on me and my career.” Tom remains very connected to BYU, collaborating with professors on projects and teaching core workshops to their students. 

After graduating with a Masters in geology, Tom joined Exxon in 1977 to work in south Texas out of Kingsville. “Exxon had a very active production office there and hired a lot of geoscientists fresh out of school,” says Tom. “There was a wonderful camaraderie among us, with the older geologists teaching us about logs, finding prospects, and sitting wells. I was able to see most of my prospects drilled in the area before an opportunity to work back in Utah beckoned.”

Rick Fritz, the current American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) president-elect, was one of those young hired hands that arrived in Kingsville just a month before Tom. “This was an exciting time for all of us young geologists,” remembers Rick. “We were all assigned to an engineer and told to keep the drill bit turning. Busy was an understatement. We all had to generate prospects as Exxon had a large gas contract to fill. I remember Tom as a bright pioneer and very driven, developing a lot of prospects and getting them drilled. We were a close group and when I left Kingsville, I created the ‘Weevil’ award, as that is what we called ourselves, made out of an old, very ugly bowling trophy of mine. It was ‘awarded’ to new hires as they left the area for other offices, and guess what… I got it back when I became director at AAPG. It is a history of those of us that had worked the area; Tom’s was the first of 20 names on the award. Anyway, we are still all great friends and ski together every spring break.”

Tom left Texas to work on the hot Utah thrust belt play along with the Uinta Basin, Utah and the Green River Basin of south-western Wyoming. The geologic knowledge of the region he gained while at BYU was a valuable asset during his nine-year career with Celsius/Wexpro (now Dominion Energy). Tom also became active in the Utah Geological Association (UGA). “During this time, I led field trips, published some papers and gave presentations of the geology of Utah, all of which I found enjoyable and appealing,” says Tom. “This experience would eventually help me land my job at Utah Geological Survey.”

The Dream Job

Tom started working at UGS in 1989. “It was my dream job come true,” he says. “I’ve had the freedom to work an incredible variety of projects all across the State and beyond. Three geologic provinces come together in Utah and rocks of just about every age and depositional environment can be found here along with some very interesting modern analogs of these same rocks. All of this is less than a day’s drive away.”

While taking full advantage of the freedom provided by his new job and the geology that surrounds their offices in Salt Lake City, he certainly hit the ground running. Tom has numerous publications on Utah petroleum geology, carbon dioxide resources and sequestration, oil and gas outcrop analogs, microbial carbonates, the general geology of Utah’s many parks, and is even a co-author of papers on Mars rover protocols using Utah sites. He has been the editor/co-editor of nine UGA, AAPG and UGS field guidebooks and bulletins.

Some of his work and publications explain oil and gas activity in Utah to its citizens and he has devoted considerable time and energy in educating the public about geology and petroleum resources. His enthusiasm for geology can be contagious. “I have been told that when I talk to people about Utah’s geology, my face lights up,” he says. “Everyone has a natural curiosity about how our world formed and I am happy to try my best to explain some of the things I have studied and know. I am always surprised that few people realize that Utah has significant petroleum resources. It is fun to fill them in and give them what I call ‘Petroleum Geology 101’. I try to be humble and less technical in explaining the technology that helps meet our energy needs to a public that may truly lack a full understanding.”

Past and Future

Tom recently published one of his ‘outside’ interests, a story entitled Major John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Journey Down the Green and Colorado Rivers of Utah. He has retraced the trip and his attention was often “arrested by some new wonder” Powell had marveled at during his journey. “I first saw the Grand Canyon while on a four-day field trip taught by the late, great Ken Hamblin,” says Tom. “With this great introduction to geology, I have often felt a debt of gratitude for the incredible contributions and ideas past geologists have given all of us in this field. They are an inspiration to me personally.” 

  • Retracing Major Powell’s 1869 travels, Tom and his elder son, Michael, enjoy rafting the Colorado River and admiring the amazing geology exposed in its cutting of the Grand Canyon. © Michael Vanden Berg, UGS.

In addition to retracing Powell’s journey, Tom’s interest in geology and history has taken him to all 50 states and 17 countries, seeking out new places and geosites. He has stood in Charles Darwin’s study and scrambled down the craggy cliffs to James Hutton’s famous unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland. To him, “seeing such revered sites in the history of geologic study is the BEST.”

His interest in history runs deep and very personal. “Great grandfather Chidsey fought for the Pennsylvania Volunteers in the Civil War and my grandfather in World War I,” says Tom. “I have visited all the battlefield sites where they fought and plan to write about their experiences for the family after I retire.”

  • Tom with his wife of 44 years, Mary, at Hutton’s unconformity, Siccar Point, Scotland. © Scott Ritter, BYU.

When not being a geologist, Tom’s life, along with that of his wife Mary, centers around their two sons, a daughter and nine grandchildren. Active in his church and community, Tom would like to be remembered “as one who loved geology, particularly Utah, and wanted to share this with others through publications, field trips and presentations.” 

“Timing is everything in life and it has worked out very well for me. My professors, colleagues, friends and family, and the support of UGS, UGA and AAPG in what I have worked on have given me the wonderful career I have had.”

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