Professor James Brasington

Waikato Regional Council Chair of River Science

Qualifications: PhD (Cambridge); BSc (Bristol)

About James

Few of us are untouched by the rivers and streams that flow around us on a daily basis.  They provide a significant source of our water supply, conduits for runoff, key axes for navigation and pose barriers to our movement.  They play a vital role in providing us with food, recreation and building materials, sustain important biological communities and regulate the flow of nutrients and contaminants.  Less frequently but sometimes catastrophically, rivers can also become a disruptive force in our lives; flooding our homes and damaging critical assets but also threatening our livelihoods when they overheat and dry up.

Despite our familiarity with these fascinating natural systems, pose a few simple questions about their form and processes and we quickly confront the boundary of our knowledge.

For example, take the time to stand by your local river and question why the river is that wide, that deep and that fast?  When and where will it next flood?  Dig a little deeper (literally) and ask what sediments comprise the river bed, where did they come from and how long have they been here?  Continue to dig down and you might find that the sediments change size, colour and shape, leading you to think whether the river conditions may have been different in the past and could again change in the future?  All that digging will also likely uncover some signs of life too. You might then be drawn to ask what species inhabit your river, does this change through time, how do they interact with each other and how they are affected by natural (floods and droughts) and anthropogenic (water abstraction, regulation, contamination) stresses?  Now cast your eyes upward and upstream and you’ll see that you are in the lowest point of the landscape, so that everything flowing past you has, in fact, come from the hills above you.  How long has it taken for the water to get here, what path did it follow and how does that affect the transport of the sediments and solutes on the bed and flowing past you?

If like me, you find those questions fascinating, you won’t be surprised to know that I followed a watery path that led me to pursue them for a career!

Over the last twenty or so years, I have studied the processes that control the form, structure and function of rivers and their catchments.  My research seeks to synthesize technological advances in ground-based, airborne and satellite monitoring with developments in numerical modelling, in order to create simplified tools that represent rivers and their processes.  These models allows us to address questions that challenge our current knowledge and shed light on how rivers might behave in a changing future shaped by a dynamic climate and shifting patterns of land-use.

My Background

I started at the University in late 2017, moving from Queen Mary, University of London to take up this exciting new post sponsored by the Waikato Regional Council. Underpinning this position, is the goal to help frame, develop and analyse the key science questions and management strategies that are necessary to support the healthy functioning of rivers across the region, NZ and beyond.  Linked to this, is the ambition to aid the development of the next generation of river scientists.  So, if you share my enthusiasm, I would love to hear about your interests and ideas for potential research projects.

I was awarded my doctorate from the University of Cambridge for research into catchment modelling in the Nepal Himalaya in 1998. I since have held lectureships at the Universities of Hull, Cambridge and Wales, before being appointed to professorial positions at the University of Canterbury NZ and latterly, Queen Mary, University of London.

Over the last decade my research has attracted competitive funding from a range of sponsors including the UK Natural Environmental Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, the US Department of Defence, UK and NZ Government departments and their executive agencies (DEFRA, DTI and the Environment Agency, Regional Councils) and a broad range of industrial partners.  This has enabled me to develop a strong, internationally-orientated, collaborative team working on a wide range of research themes and projects.  You can read more about the specific themes and projects we work on below.

Research Interests

My research focuses on the links between the Earth’s surface morphology and the physical processes that shape it.  This relationship is two way, as topography exerts a primary control on the distribution and intensity of geophysical flows which in turn, shape our landscapes through erosion and sedimentation. I am fortunate to be working on this theme now as the geosciences undergo a technological revolution that is transforming the measurement of topography.  This step-change is driven by the emergence of new Earth observation platforms and sensors, in particular airborne and terrestrial laser scanners and new methods to model landforms in three dimensions from ground-based, aerial and satellite imagery.  Datasets which capture the geometry of integrated landscapes, built upwards from their particle scale building blocks, are fast becoming a reality.

3D TLS point cloud model of the Rees River at multiple spatial scales

Multi-scale morphological models: capturing the organization of river systems at the scales of individual grains to whole river reaches (see Brasington, et al., 2012; 2017; Verciat et al, 2017)

This data revolution has far reaching consequences, offering new insights into the scaling of topography, non-invasive methods to quantify landscape form across multiple spatial scales and a framework to measure 3D change and sediment budgets robustly.  Perhaps more fundamentally, these data offer new opportunities to develop novel tools to parameterize and test numerical models in order to better predict the dynamics of the key geophysical flows which both supply and threaten our growing populations.

Within this broad theme, my research has targeted the development of new methods to both monitor and numerically model the feedbacks between Earth surface forms and processes.  Much of this research has focused on river and catchment dynamics and notable recent highlights include:

  • Leading the development of novel ground-based and remote sensing methods to characterise the form and dynamics of river systems, from the scale of individual grains up to entire reaches.
  • Designing benchmark methods for quantifying geomorphic change through differencing digital elevation models.
  • Developing novel numerical models to simulate river hydrodynamics and morphodynamics, to support improved flood forecasting and resource management.
  • Discrete simulation modelling of complex interacting systems, from the mechanics granular mixtures to strongly coupled social-environmental systems.

For a full listing of my research publications linked to these themes see my Google Scholar profile.

Selected Recent Publications

Victoriano, A., Brasington, J., Guinau, M., Furdada, G., Cabre, M., Moysset, M. 2018. Geomorphic impact and assessment of flexible barriers using multi-temporal lidar data. Engineering Geology,

Vericat, D., Wheaton, J.W., Brasington, J. 2017.  The morphological approach to estimating bedload yield.  In, Tsutsumi, D. and Laronne, J. (eds).  Gravel Bed Rivers and Disasters. Wiley, 121-158

Ridofi, M., Tubino, M., Bertoldi, W., Brasington, J. 2016. Analysis of reach-scale elevation distribution in braided rivers.  Water Resources Research, 52, 5951-5970.

Williams, R.D., Measures, R., Hicks, D.M., Brasington, J. 2016. Assessment of a numerical model to reproduce event-scale erosion and deposition distributions.  Water Resources Research, 52, 6621-6642.

Williams, R.D., Rennie, C.D., Brasington, J., Hicks, D.M., Vericat, D. 2015.  Within-event spatially distributed bedload: linking fluvial sediment transport to morphological change.  Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 120 (3), 604-620

Javernick, L., Brasington, J. Caruso, B. 2014. Modelling the topography of shallow braided rivers using Structure-from-Motion photogrammetry, Geomorphology, 213, 166-182.

Wheaton, J. M., Brasington, J., Darby, S. E., Kasprak, A., Sear, D., & Vericat, D. 2013. Morphodynamic signatures of braiding mechanisms as expressed through change in sediment storage in a gravel‐bed river. Journal of Geophysical Research: Earth Surface, 118, 759-779.

Brasington, J., Vericat, D. and Rychkov, I. 2012. Modelling River Bed Morphology, Roughness and Surface Sedimentology using High Resolution Terrestrial Laser Scanning. Water Resources Research, 48, W11519.

Westoby, M.J., Brasington, J., Glasser, N.F., Hambrey, M.J. and Reynolds, J.M. 2012. ‘Structure-from-motion’ photogrammetry: a low-cost, effective tool for geoscience applications.  Geomorphology, 179, 300-314

Research Supervised

I have supervised 14 PhD students to the successful completion of their thesis.  If you are interested in developing a research project under my supervision, I would be keen to hear from you.  I am particularly interested in candidates who want to undertake research  into river morphodynamics, flood risk, sediment transport, erosional processes and the remote sensing of rivers.  Candidates will ideally be numerate and enjoy studying processes in the field and back in the office.  Those attributes encompasses a wide range of backgrounds, including students from the geosciences, engineering, physics and applied mathematics and computer science.

Current PhD Students

  • Ross Martin (UoW) Remote sensing of seagrass and estuarine vegetation communities
  • Bishnu Raj Baral (QMUL) Numerical modelling of gravel-bed braided rivers
  • Niall Lehane (QMUL) Quantifying geomorphic change in alpine regions through satellite photogrammetry
  • Yasmin Walley (QMUL) Source-to-sink modelling of sediment dynamics at national scales

Graduated PhD Students in the last five years

  • Joe James. Reach-scale modelling of fluvial dynamics through helicopter-based structure from motion photogrammetry
  • Marco Ridolfi. Reach-averaged morphology and sediment transport of braided rivers
  • Richard Williams. 2D numerical of natural braided river morphodynamics
  • Matt Westoby. Numerical modelling of Himalayan Glacial Lake Outburst Floods
  • Luke Javernick. Relationship between Flood Events and Vegetation Mortality in the Ahuriri River, NZ


Environment; Environmental Change; Environmental Science and Technology; Geology; Imaging; Remote Sensing

Rivers; Geomorphology; Hydrology; Floods; Sediment Transport;

Contact Details

Room: R 2.08
Phone: +64 7 858 5046