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Professor James Brasington

Professor of Geography

email: j.brasington@qmul.ac.uk
Tel: 020 7882 8416
Location: Room 201, Geography Building

Profile

James Brasington
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.  This data revolution has far reaching consequences and offers the potential to redefine methods to quantify landscape dynamics; to readdress arbitrary, but engrained, distinctions, such as between roughness and topography; and perhaps most fundamentally, to develop new 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.

Multi-scale morphological models of braided rivers, capturing landscape structure from individual grains to whole river reaches.

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:

  1. Leading the development of novel ground-based and remote sensing methods (TLS, SfM, Lidar) to characterise the form and dynamics of river systems, from the scale of individual grains up to entire reaches (e.g., Williams et al., 2013; Brasington et al., 2012; Westoby et al., 2012; Rychkov et al., 2012; Brasington, 2010; Antonarakis et al., 2010; 2008; Hodge et al. 2009; Brasington and Smart, 2003).
  2. Designing benchmark methods for quantifying change in fluvial systems through differencing digital elevation models (Brasington et al., 2000; 2003; Wheaton et al., 2010; 2013);
  3. Developing reduced complexity approaches for simulating hydrodynamic processes and sediment transport (e.g., Brasington and Richards, 2007; McMillan and Brasington, 2007; 2008; Hodge et al., 2007; Williams et al., 2013).
  4. Discrete simulation modelling of complex interacting systems, from the mechanics granular mixtures to strongly coupled social-environmental systems (Bithell and Brasington, 2009; Bithell et al., 2008).

Background

I was awarded my doctorate from the University of Cambridge for research into hydrological modelling in the Nepal Himalaya in 1998. I have held academic positions at the Universities of Hull, Cambridge and Wales, before taking up a Chair at the University of Canterbury, NZ.  I moved back to the UK in 2012 to my present post as Professor of Physical Geography.  I currently serve on the Steering Committee of the NERC Geophysical Equipment Facility, the NERC Peer Review College, and the NERC Technology review panel.  Alongside these roles, I hold the position of Adjunct Professor at the University of Canterbury, NZ and have editorial roles for Open Geology (2007-), Geomorphology (2007) and Water Resources Research (2009-2013).  I have given keynote and invited lectures at many international conferences and symposia, including: the British Society for Geomorphology (London, UK); the Spanish Society for Geomorphology (Solsona, Spain); The International Association of Geomorphology (Melbourne, Australia); Gravel Bed Rivers VII (Quebec, Canada); the Binghamton Symposium for Geomorphology (South Carolina, USA); the British Association for the Advancement of Science (Cambridge, UK); The United States Institute for Peace (Washington, USA); the American Geophysical Union (Boston and San Francisco, USA); and European Geosciences Union (Vienna, EU).    

Teaching

I aim to engage students through a range of teaching and learning styles that seek to mirror the way researchers gain new insights and develop novel theories.  This is achieved by structuring courses which first capture hearts by articulating the history and modern relevance of our science; then embed theory by learning from first principles; and finally, by providing the tools to develop, test and refine questions and hypotheses.  This strategy requires students to engage with research methods directly and think critically and creatively when confronted with challenging observations and results.  As a committed field scientist, the outdoors remains my laboratory of choice and the best place to learn about environmental processes and dynamics.  The field inspires and grounds theory in a way that we can only strive to replicate in the lecture theatre.  

Over the last 15 years, I have taught undergraduate courses in my research specialisms of hydrology, fluvial geomorphology and Earth observation.  I have led field courses to a variety of exciting and destinations including New Zealand, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Scotland and also taught methodological modules on numerical modeling, surveying, statistics and GIS.  At Queen Mary, I play an active role in teaching across both undergraduate and postgraduate levels.  Courses I teach currently include:

Undergraduate Teaching

Postgraduate Taught Courses

Research

Research interests:

My research lies at the interface of Earth observation and Earth surface science and focusses specifically on quantifying and predicting the dynamics of river systems and their catchments over timescales of events-to-decades.  The development of a quantitative river science relevant at these time and space scales (10-1-102 km and 101-102 years), is fundamental to the design of effective management strategies for our increasingly stressed and populated river corridors.  Much of the legacy of research in the geosciences lies uncomfortably astride this ‘intermediate’ time and space scale and forces unduly reductionist or generalized perspectives on processes at the landscape scale.  For example, the conceptual frameworks linking hydraulics and sediment transport have relied largely on experimental laboratory and CFD-based studies conducted at the scale of a few metres and durations of seconds to hours.  By contrast, our understanding of climate and land-use forcing has been derived at the opposite end of this spectrum; from the spatially and temporally integrated, but incomplete, imprecise and coarse-resolution rock record. 

There is now an urgent need to develop a robust, quantitative understanding of this 'intermediate-scale', with a revised focus on its dynamic character, forcing controls and the identification the landscape-scale transport laws which control its evolution over relevant planning and management horizons (see Brasington and Richards, 2007 for further discussion). 

My research has sought to contribute toward this goal by synergising Earth observation and numerical modelling and focuses specifically on three interrelated themes:


Quantifying the morphodynamics of fluvial systems using high resolution remote sensing and terrestrial geomatics.

Image: front cover of Water Resources and Research, showing a dense 3d model of the River Feshie acquired by terrestrial laser scanning during research in 2007 – see Brasington et al., 2012 for further details.

 

 


Multi-resolution methods to characterize fluvial processes and parameterize numerical models

Image: calibrating measurements of bedload transport determined from acoustic Dopplar bed profiling, see Brasington et al., 2011

 


Developing novel numerical methods to simulate flood hydrology, hydraulics and sediment transport

Image: urban flood simulations based on a multi-scale raster flood model.  Here terrestrial laser scan data are used to provide realistic renderings of extreme flood scenarios.  See McMillian and Brasington, 2007; 2008 for details.

 

In the last decade since, my research has attracted over £1m of research funding, secured competitively from a range of sponsors including the UK Natural Environmental Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust, the US Department of Defence, UK Government departments and their executive agencies (DEFRA, DTI and the Environment Agency) and a broad range of engineering consultancies.   Some recent and current projects that I am working on include:

 


ReesScan: Hyperscale modelling of braided rivers Natural Environmental Research Council, NE/G005427/1

This project aims to develop novel insights into patterns and processes of sediment transport and morphological adjustment in braided rivers.  Our research involved developing a hybrid airborne and terrestrial survey methodology to acquire 3d models of large braided river in New Zealand, the Rees River, at unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution.  A unique dataset that quantifies the evolution of the Rees through ten component flood events in one summer, is now being used to develop and test simplified theories and numerical models to predict the response of braided rivers to flood magnitude.

 


Morphsed: Morpho-sedimentary dynamics in human-stressed fluvial systems. 

Ministry of Science, Spain, CLG2012-36394

This project is based on a collaboration between Dr Damia Vericat (University of Lleida), Dr Chris Gibbins (University of Aberdeen) and Dr Mark Smith (University of Leeds) aims to examine the impacts of major anthropogenic stresses, in particular gravel mining, on the morphological, sedimentological and ecological processes in upland gravel bed rivers.  Research is focused on the River Cinca in the Pyrenees, in northern Spain.

 


Sensitivity of braided river morphodynamics to sediment supply

National Science Foundation, 1147942

This project, in collaboration with Dr Joe Wheaton (Utah State University) aims to develop a new approach to simulate the 3-dimensional morphodynamics of braided rivers using a simplified, particle-based advection method.  The approach is being calibrated and tested on a unique set of detailed 3d reconstructions of the River Feshie in Northern Scotland, an area where I have worked for over 10 years now.

 


Numerical modelling of Himalayan glacial lake outburst floods

Natural Environmental Research Council, NE/G011443/1

This project, in collobration with Dr Matt Westoby, Professors Neil Glasser and Mike Hambrey, has sought to develop an end-to-end methodology to predict the causes and consequences of high magnitude Glacial Lake Outburst Floods or GLOFs in the high Himalaya.  As part of this project we have led the application of Structure-from-Motion and Multi-View Stereo as methods to reconstruct landscapes in fully 3-dimensions, providing boundary conditions and diagnostic models to drive and test simulations.

Publications

(last five years)

For full details, see my online published profiles on ResearcherID and Google Scholar

 

  • Williams, R.D., Brasington, J., Hicks, D.M., Measures, R., Rennie, C.D., Vericat, D. 2013.  Hydraulic validation of two-dimensional simulations of braided river flow with spatially continuous aDcp data.  Water Resources Research, DOI: 10.1002/wrcr.20391.
  • Williams, R. D., Brasington, J., Vericat, D. and Hicks, D. M. 2013. Hyperscale terrain modelling of braided rivers: fusing mobile terrestrial laser scanning and optical bathymetric mapping. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms.  doi: 10.1002/esp.3437
  • 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(11), 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.
  • Rychkov, I., Brasington, J. and Vericat, D. 2012.  Computational and methodological aspects of terrestrial surface analysis based on point clouds. Computers and Geosciences, 42, 64-70.
  • Williams, R.D., Brasington, J., Vericat, D., Hicks, D.M., Labrosse, F., Neal, M.N. 2011. Monitoring braided river change using terrestrial laser scanning and optical bathymetric mapping. In, Smith, M., Paron, P. and Griffiths, J. 2011. Geomorphological Mapping. Elsevier, pp. 508-529.
  • Brasington, J., Rennie, C.D., Vericat, D., Williams, R., Goodsell, B., Hicks, D.M., Batalla, R. 2011.  Monitoring braided river morphodynamics with an acoustic Doppler current profiler.  Proceedings of the 34th World Congress of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Research and Engineering: 33rd Hydrology and Water Resources Symposium and 10th Conference on Hydraulics in Water Engineering, 3396-3403. Engineers Australia.
  • Brasington, J. 2010. From grain to floodplain: hyperscale models of braided rivers. Journal of Hydraulic Research, 48 (4): 52-53 Suppl. 4 2010.
  • Brasington, J. and Vericat, D. 2010. Geomatics and Geomorphology: shining new light on riverscapes. Trabajos Geomorfología en España, 2008-2010. SEG, 167-187.
  • Wheaton, J., Brasington, J., Darby, S.E., Sear, D. 2010. Accounting for uncertainty in DEMs from repeated topographic survey: improved sediment budgets. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 35, 136-156.
  • Wheaton, J., Brasington, J., Darby, S.E., Mertz, J., Pasternack, G.B., Sear, D., Vericat, D. 2010. Linking geomorphic changes to salmonid habitat and a scale relevant to fish. River Research and Applications, 26, 469-486.
  • Antonarakis, A.S., Richards, K.S., Brasington, J., Bithell, M. and Muller, E. 2010. Determining LAI and leafy tree roughness using terrestrial lidar. Water Resources Research, 46, W606510.
  • Antonarakis, A.S., Richards, K.S., Brasington, J., Bithell, M. and Muller, E. 2009. Leafless roughness of complex tree morphology using terrestrial lidar. Water Resources Research, 45, W10401.
  • Vericat, D., Brasington, J., Cowie, M. and Wheaton, J. 2009. Accuracy assessment of aerial photographs acquired using lighter-than-air blimps: low-cost tools for mapping river corridors. River Research and Applications, 15, 985-1000.
  • Bithell, M. and Brasington, J. 2009. Integrating agent-based models of subsistence farming with individual-based forest models and dynamic models of water distribution. Environmental Modelling and Software, 24, 173-190.
  • Hodge RA, Brasington J, Richards KS. 2009. Characterisation of grain-scale fluvial morphology using TLS. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 34, 954-968.
  • Hodge RA, Brasington J, Richards KS. 2009. Analysing laser-scanned digital terrain models of gravel bed surfaces: linking morphology to sediment transport processes and hydraulics. Sedimentology, 56, 2024-2043.
  • Rumsby, B.T., Brasington, J., Langham, J.A., McLelland, S.J., Middleton, R., Rollinson, G., 2008. Monitoring and modelling particle and reach-scale morphological change in gravel bed rivers: applications and challenges, Geomorphology, 93, 40-54.
  • Vericat, D., Brasington, J., Wheaton, J., Rychkov, I. 2008. Determinación de la rugosidad de lechos de gravamediante láser terrestre de alta resolución. Trabajos Geomorfología en España, 2006-2008. SEG, 167-170.
  • Antonarakis A.S, Richards K.S, Brasington J. 2008. Retrieval of vegetative fluid resistance using airborne lidar. Journal Geophysical Research - Biogeosciences, 113, G02S07.
  • Antonarakis A.S, Richards K.S, Brasington J. 2008. Object-based land cover classification using airborne LiDAR. Remote Sensing of Environment, 112, 2988-2998.
  • Bithell, M., Brasington, J. and Richards, K.S. 2008. Discrete-element, individual-based and agent-based models: Tools for interdisciplinary geography?Geoforum, 39, 625-642.
  • McMillan, H.K. and Brasington, J. 2008. End-to-end flood forecasting under uncertainty. Water Resources Research, 44, W03419.
  • McMillan, H.K. and Brasington, J. 2007. Reduced Complexity Strategies for Modelling Urban Floodplain Inundation, Geomorphology, 90, 226-243.
  • Brasington, J. and Richards, K. 2007. Reduced-complexity, physically-based geomorphological modelling for catchment and river management, Geomorphology, 90, 171-177.
  • Hodge, R., Richards, K.S. and Brasington, J. 2007. A physically-based bedload transport model developed for 3D reach-scale cellular modelling, Geomorphology, 90, 244-262.

PhD Supervision

Postgraduate research opportunities in Earth Surface Science

I have supervised 10 PhD students to their completion successfully and am actively recruiting new doctoral candidates.  If you are interested in developing a research project under my supervision, it may be of interest to know that I am coordinating the Queen Mary end of an EU Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctoral programme, SMART (Science for Management of Rivers and their Tidal Systems) from January 2013.  This collaborative venture between QMUL and the University of Trento (Italy) and the Free University of Berlin/IGB provides funds for up to nine new doctoral candidates each year.  Future and current vacancies will published on www.riverscience.eu.

In the meantime, if you have any ideas you would like to explore, I am particularly keen to her from candidates who have an interest in dynamical river systems, alpine environments, and have interests in developing new ways to quantify and predict their behaviour.  I am interested in candidates who are both numerate and interested in studying processes in the field.  Those attributes a encompasses a wide range of backgrounds, including undergraduates and masters students from the geosciences, engineering, physics and applied mathematics and computer science.  

In addition to the SMART programme, QMUL also offers PhD scholarships through the NERC and internal funds, for more information see: http://www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/admissions/phdadmissions.

Current PhD Students at QMUL

  • Joe James: Modelling the response of braided rivers to unsteady sediment supply
  • Francis O’Shea: Development of a risk assessment model for bankside landfill sites
  • James Brand: Diffuse pollution in the coastal zone: waste filled sea walls.

SMART PhD Students

  • Marco Ridolfi (Trento): Average geometry and sediment transport of braided rivers
  • Umesh Singh (Trento): Modelling river morphodynamics
  • Navid Marofifathpour (Trento): Interactions between vegetation, morphology and water quality

External PhD Students:

  • Luke Javernick, Uni Canterbury, NZ: Colonization and removal of invasive species on braided rivers
  • Richard Williams, Aberystwyth University: 2d Morphodynamic modelling of braided rivers

Public engagement

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