The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

Staff Profile

Dr Nick Cutler

Lecturer in Physical Geography



I'm a physical geographer interested in long-term ecological change, particularly in soil and plant communities, and the ecological impacts of volcanic processes. My recent work has focused on the development of soil microbial communities, and the impact of different vegetation types on the preservation of volcanic ash deposits. I conduct fieldwork in Iceland, NW USA and Patagonia.

View a short film about my recent research here.

Key words: Succession, tephra deposits


  • 2011-2017: College Lecturer in Geography, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
  • 2009-2011: Postdoctoral Research Assistant, School of Geography & the Environment, University of Oxford
  • 2008-2009: Postdoctoral Research Associate, Scottish Centre for Carbon Storage, University of Edinburgh


  • PhD Geography – University of Edinburgh
  • MA Geography – University of Cambridge

Google Scholar



My research combines elements of ecology, biogeography and environmental science. I'm interested in the terrestrial biosphere and its influence on earth surface processes. My work falls into two related categories, namely long-term (decades to centuries) ecosystem development and feedbacks between biological communities and the physical environment.

Ecosystem development

My work on ecosystem development has focussed on long-term changes in communities of plants and microbes.

My NERC-funded PhD investigated 850 years of vegetation succession on the lava flows of Mt Hekla, Iceland. I was particularly interested in the emergence and persistence of spatial pattern in plant communities, and later extended this work below ground, using molecular (DNA) techniques to study long-term changes in communities of soil bacteria and fungi (support from BES & Oxford University, 2009-11).

After my PhD, I worked on Climate change, 'greening' of masonry and implications for the decay of built heritage and new build (EPSRC, 2009-12) which investigated the development of microbial communities on building stone. I was involved in characterizing the communities using molecular techniques and assessing their impact on the movement of moisture through stone (inferred using geoelectrical methods).

I also contributed to the Boreal nitrogen gap project (NERC, 2012-15), which assessed the impact of wildfires on biogeochemical cycling in boreal ecosystems, and Climatic and temporal control on microbial diversity-ecosystem functioning (CLIMIFUN) (H2020, 2016-19), an analysis of global differences in soil ecosystem function during ecosystem development.

Biophysical feedbacks

My research into biophysical feedbacks has focused on the role that vegetation plays in geomorphological processes, namely, the preservation of volcanic ash (tephra) deposits and soil erosion.

I was Co-Investigator on the project Tephra layers and early warning signals for critical transitions (NSF EAGER, 2013-15), which studied the impact of vegetation structure on tephra layer preservation in Iceland and Washington State. The goal of this work was to improve reconstructions of past volcanic eruptions. Building on this project, I led the Tephra transformations project (RGS & QRA, 2018 - ongoing) to investigate the preservation and gradual transformation of the tephra deposit produced by the eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980.

I am currently contributing to the project Tephra transformations in South America: decoding the record of past volcanic eruptions, looking at differences in tephra layer preservation in lakes and terrestrial settings (Carnegie Trust & Newcastle University, 2019 - ongoing).

In addition to work on tephra layer preservation, I recently conducted fieldwork in Iceland (2017 – ongoing) that modelled the initiation and growth of erosion patches in a sub-Arctic rangeland, to investigate ecological resilience along an environmental gradient.


I contribute to the following modules:

Stage 1

  • GEO1005: Environmental issues (module leader)
  • GEO1019: Physical geography residential field course

Stage 2

  • GEO2127: Doing physical geography research (module leader)
  • GEO2137: Key methods in physical geography
  • GEO2228: Biogeography (module co-leader)
  • GEO2052: Iceland fieldtrip

Stage 3

  • GEO3099: Dissertation
  • GEO3218: Polar environments