Nicholas Sutfin

A changing landscape

My research and teaching focus on changes across the surface of the Earth through time, primarily those driven by water and gravity. Some of my work has involved geomorphic hazards including landslides, debris flows, and the impact of floods. Most of my graduate and postdoctoral work has focused on rivers, sediment, erosion, biogeomorphic feedbacks, carbon dynamics, floods, geochronology, and surface hydrology. I’ve had the opportunity to examine hillslope process geomorphology from slow creeping solifluction lobes in arctic Alaska to rapid downslope movement of debris flow in my work with the US Geological Survey quantifying post-fire debris-flow hazards in southern California and central Colorado, US.

A variety of tools and methods are utilized in my research including intensive fieldwork, surveying and differential GPS, GIS and spatial analysis, multivariate and spatial statistics, analysis of remotely sensed imagery and lidar, collection and analytical methods of soil and water, and a combination of physically based and empirical models.

Rivers tend to be a focus of my research (more described here) because they integrate my interests in geology, sedimentology, geomorphology, hydrology, ecology, biogeochemistry, hazards, freshwater resources, and social-ecological systems. Rivers are the arteries of Earth, delivering water, sediment, and vital nutrients across the landscape. I examine how rivers change the landscape from days to hundreds of thousands of years as a result of climate, tectonics, and human activities with implications for freshwater resources and ecosystem health.

Societies have migrated toward and developed around water and rivers. With ambition to develop the land, humanity has greatly changed the physical and biological form and process of rivers. In addition to changes in the shape and form of rivers through mining, timber harvest, dredging for navigation, urban development and building roads, we have altered the amount of water that flows in rivers. In our attempt to acquire freshwater for drinking, agriculture, and manufacturing, we have left only a trace of natural flows. This is true particularly in the western US, where increasing populations and demand for freshwater have altered the natural flow regime of rivers. This changes the form and function of rivers, alters the balance between water and sediment, threatens river ecosystems, and hinders the services that ecosystems provide. Societies have grown to expect, and often take for granted, these ecosystem services including productive fisheries and natural filtration of freshwater. The impact of societies on natural river systems is exacerbated by a changing climate. As global average temperatures increase, demand for water becomes greater all while annual average snowpack is declining. My research and collaborative efforts with other scientists seek to explore the natural processes of rivers over several thousands of years and how land use and climate change are and will continue to influence these processes.

I am a postdoctoral researcher with the Earth Systems Observations group (EES-14) of the Earth and Environmental Sciences Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I work with Joel Rowland on his DOE Early Career Award through the Office of Science Subsurface Biogeochemical Research Program to investigate hydrologic controls on river change over time and floodplain carbon dynamics with the goal of integrating rivers into earth system models and the global carbon cycle. In this work, I am involved as a registered visiting scientist at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, and collaborate with scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. With funding through the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, I work with other scientists using fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance to determine landscape-scale regulators on the decomposition of organic matter at the watershed scale.

I earned my PhD from the Department of Geosciences in the Warner College of Natural Resources as a National Science Foundation IGERT Fellow in the Integrated Water Atmosphere Ecosystem Education and Research Program at Colorado State University with specialization in interdisciplinary research and linkages between fluvial geomorphology, catchment hydrology, riparian and aquatic ecology, and carbon dynamics.


A Midwestern deposit, I grew up among dense deciduous vegetation on the sandy ancient shorelines of Lake Erie and atop Berea sandstone and a rainbow of shale and conglomerate. As a young fine art photography student with a newly found love of geology I was enticed by the raw, exposed geology of the American Rocky Mountain West, where I had spent many summers backpacking.

As an undergraduate in the Dept. of Geosciences at Boise State University, I was inspired in geomorphology and hydrology  by enthusiastic professors, including Jen Pierce and Shawn Benner. I completed a B.S. at Boise State University in Geosciences – Hydrology with a strong background in geology. Fluvial geomorphology at Colorado State University (CSU) seemed a natural union between my interests.  I earned a M.S. in Geosciences – Geomorphology and a PhD in Earth Sciences – Fluvial Geomorphology conducting research with Ellen Wohl in the Fluvial Geomorphology Lab at CSU.


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