Catchment and River Science (CaRiS)

Based in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Centre of Research in Environment and Society, our research group undertakes basic, applicable and applied science relating to fluvial processes within catchments and river systems. 

Our conceptual approach stresses the importance of linkages between geomorphology and hydrology to riverscape ecology and ‘source-to-sea’ understanding of the aquatic system. Understanding such processes, over short and long timescales, is a necessary step towards creating catchments and rivers that are resilient to environmental change (for instance, in response to more frequent extreme events like flooding) and that maximise the value of ecosystem services for society. Our main research foci are:

Catchment Science

  • Source, transfer and fate of fine sediment within rural and urban catchments both in the UK and overseas; use of radionuclides as tracers
  • Human and biological impacts on river sediment and water quality
River Science

  • Assessment of channel heterogeneity and ecosystem services across river networks using field, digital and remotely sensed data
  • Evaluation of the impacts of land use changes on coarse sediment transport, channel morphology response and aquatic habitat.
Catchment Management and River Restoration
  • Development of strategies to deliver effective catchment and river management and restoration together with new modes of assessment and monitoring
  • Understanding community resilience and stakeholder viewpoints

National and international links 

We have excellent links with relevant organisations in the UK (e.g. Environment Agency, Devon Wildlife Trust, River Restoration Centre, Buglife and Westcountry Rivers Trust) and a strong international profile ​with research collaboration in Chile, Malaysian Borneo, Australia, Canada and the USA.

Dave Gilvear is President Elect to the International Society of River Science (and leader to the working group on 'Ecosystem services and Goods from Riverine Landscapes'). Peter Downs is currently Honorary Secretary to the British Society for Geomorphology. Will Blake is a member of a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation/International Atomic Energy Agency Coordinated Research Programme on use of isotopic tracers in river basins.

A number of staff were associated with 2014 Research Excellence Framework Impact studies (e.g. Centre for River Ecosystem Science; Wildfire impacts on water quality).

Our facilities and field work

CaRiS is supported by and maintains outstanding ISO-certified analytical laboratories including the Plymouth University Consolidated Radioisotope Facility (CORiF) allowing, for example, sediment fingerprinting and analysis of water and sediment quality. Excellent field monitoring equipment enables monitoring of river flows, suspended sediment concentrations and bedload transport. 

The River Avon is used as a field laboratory to monitor natural bedload and suspended sediment dynamics and the impact of a 2014 gravel augmentation initiative below the Avon dam. State of the art surveying equipment (e.g., terrestrial LiDAR) and an unmanned airborne vehicle allows remote mapping of physical heterogeneity and connectivity in fluvial systems. The group has access to experienced technical support for field, laboratory and GIS studies. 

Cross-disciplinary research 

Cross-disciplinary research (physical geography; environmental science, biology and human geography) within our group is targeted at understanding the fluvial-marine interface, ecosystem services and benefits to society, the maintenance of habitat for iconic species, perceptions of environmental quality and community resilience, stakeholder viewpoints and conflict resolution within ​catchments. 

We benefit from links with other strong research groups at Plymouth. For, example working with the Quaternary ​Research Group allows long-term environmental change to fluvial systems to be explored while collaboration with scientists in the School of Marine Science and Engineering working on sediment dynamics and geomorphology of the coastal zone and ​marine ecosystem services allows a truly source to sea perspective to be developed and cross-fertilisation of ideas and scientific approaches.

Our people


Claire Bithell​

Research theme: Automated assessment and mapping of river ecosystem services

Victoria Keele 

Research theme: Mapping ecosystem services supply, flows and demand on river draining from the uplands to the lowlands of Scotland (SNH funded)

Fiona Thompson

Research theme: Prediction of morphological adjustment and freshwater pearl entrainment resulting from increased flood frequency in Scotland​

Sarah Twohig​

Research theme: Process-based models to determine coarse sediment connectivity and the subsequent implications for habitats within the River Avon catchment, Devon.​

​Martin Wynants

Research theme: ​Soil erosion and ecosystem services in East Africa (with NM-AIST, Tanzania and UGent, Belgium as external partners)