Professor Rolf Aalto
Associate Professor in Physical Geography


Office hours: 2:35-3:30pm Tuesdays and Wednesdays during term (check office door for updates).

Rolf researches rivers and erosion across 6 continents, including: South America (Beni, Mamore, Orinoco & Ucayali Rivers), North America (Sacramento-CA, Feather-CA & Salmon-ID Rivers & Rio Grande-NM), Australasia (Strickland & Fly Rivers PNG), Europe (Danube River Romania), and Asia (Mekong River, Cambodia & exploratory sites in China). He leads the Exeter Radiometry Lab, which features world-class analytical facilities for tracing and dating particle movement throughout a wide range of fluvial dispersal systems. He develops field and laboratory techniques to quantify processes across a range of fluvial environments as well as application of modelling and remotely sensed data to field problems. His recent research projects include a Critical Zone Observatory (CRB-CZO), a NSF-Margins project studying fluvial and biogeochemical processes in Papua New Guinea, a NERC project investigating the evolution of the Beni River System in Bolivia, and a NERC project studying the evolution of the Mekong River.

Rolf’s teaching focuses on the application of GIS, modelling, and laboratory methods to solving problems within River Basin Science. Students rate his modules highly, especially for 'development', and graduates report employability exceeding 90%. He leads the 2nd year field trip to California, which has received a rare "100%" rating for student satisfaction. 


  • The Loomis Chaffee School. Top overall scholar and awards in science and language
  • Dual BA/BSc degrees in Geology (Honors) and Applied Mathematics (UC Berkeley)
  • PhD and MSc, Geological Sciences (University of Washington)
  • NASA Earth System Science Fellow and Post-Doc (U Washington)
  • NSF Margins Post-Doctoral Researcher (UC Berkeley)
  • Licensed Engineering Geologist and Licensed Geologist, Washington



Rolf obtained his undergraduate degrees from UC Berkeley, where he was inspired to study fluvial processes in a module taught by Prof. William Dietrich (at that time working in Papua New Guinea), completing an honors thesis studying floodplain sedimentation in a specially designed flume. He completed a MSc degree at the University of Washington (Seattle), working with Prof. Thomas Dunne as a Research Assistant to calculate sediment fluxes along the Amazon River and writing a thesis on ”Discordance between suspended sediment diffusion theory and observed sediment concentration profiles in rivers.” Rolf was awarded a NASA Earth System Science Fellowship to pursue his research ambitions on tropical rivers followed by a major NSF research grant, culminating in his dissertation “Geomorphic Form and Process of Sediment Flux within an Active Orogen.”

Rolf then worked as a Post Doc at UC Berkeley, returning full circle to study fluvial processes in PNG. He was hired as Research Faculty at Washington with Prof. David Montgomery (a MacArthur 'Genius'), funded by a NASA Post Doctoral grant to investigate the SRTM dataset and a CALFED project on the Sacramento River. He was then promoted to Assistant Professor (he remains an Affiliate Associate Professor) at UW where he developed a laboratory and graduate program, wrote four successful NSF research proposals, and initiated new projects in Amazonia, Romania, California, PNG, Venezuela, Greenland, and SE Asia.

In 2007 Rolf joined Exeter’s internationally acclaimed River Basin Science group to further develop world-class analytical facilities for tracing and dating sediment movement throughout a wide range of fluvial dispersal systems. He collaborates extensively with Prof. Nicholas (physics-based models of large river systems), Prof. Quine (erosion and biogeochemical evolution of soils), and Dr. Aragao (vegetation and fire in the tropics). Rolf has also consulted professionally since 1995 on a range of topics related to geomorphic hazards and river restoration (as a Licensed Engineering Geologist). To date he has written/co-written successful research proposals worth >$10 million USD and led/co-led the execution of this research by diverse international & interdisciplinary teams working across a wide range of logistically challenging environments throughout the world.


Contact details

Internal tel3344
Tel+44 (0) 1392 723344
AddressAmory Building
University of Exeter
Rennes Drive

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