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James A. Spotila

Professor of Geology
Jim Spotila
4068 Derring Hall

I am a broad geoscientist with research interest in active tectonics and geomorphology. In tectonics I focus on the behavior of continental deformational systems, the interaction of tectonics and surficial processes, and the impact of tectonics on society. In particular, I am interested in the long-term evolution of complex strike-slip systems (e.g. San Andreas fault), the influence of glacial erosion on orogens (e.g. Alaska), and the long-term evolution of passive margins (e.g. North America). In geomorphology I focus on what controls erosion (e.g. material properties, climate), landscape evolution (e.g. post-orogenic decay, response to climate change), and the coupling of erosional processes (e.g. hillslope-fluvial coupling). My main tools are thermochronometry (U-Th/He dating), cosmogenic dating, traditional field observations, quantitative topographic analysis, and paleoseismology. As an academic geoscientist, I am also committed to education. I seek to inspire undergraduates with an appreciation of the Earth and provide graduate students with critical thinking and technical expertise for brilliant careers. My main courses are Physical Geology, Field Observations, Senior Seminar, Active tectonics, and Advanced Geomorphology.


Ph.D., Geology, California Institute of Technology, 1998

M.S., Geology, California Institute of Technology, 1995

B.S., Geology, Boston College, 1992

Current Graduate Students

  • Current Graduate Students:
  • Joshua Valentino, Ph.D. candidate
  • Michelle Fame, Ph.D. candidate
  • Cody Mason, Ph.D. candidate (co-advised)
  • William Cochran, Ph.D. candidate

Previous Graduate Students:

  • Philip Prince, Ph.D.
  • Lisa Tranel, Ph.D.
  • Aaron Berger, Ph.D.
  • Jamie Buscher, Ph.D.
  • Rebecca Rodriguez, M.S.
  • Summer Brown, M.S.
  • Erik Haug, M.S. (co-advised)
  • Kristyn (DeMarco) Moskey, M.S.
  • Ryan McAleer, M.S.
  • Laura Lukes, M.S. (co-advised)
  • Dylan Ward, M.S.
  • Jamie Buscher, M.S.
  • Kevin Anderson, M.S.
  • Rebecca Kavage Adams, M.S.
  • Greg Bank, M.S.
  • Spotila, J.A., Marshall, J., DePew, K., and Prince, P.S., and Kennedy, L., 2016, Feasibility of a paleoseismic record of megathrust rupture along the Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, Journal of Coastal Research.
  • Valentino, J.D., Spotila, J.A., Owen, L.A., and Buscher, J.T., 2016, Rock uplift at the transition from flat-slab to normal subduction: The Kenai Mountains, Southeast Alaska, Tectonophysics, 671, 63-75.
  • Spotila, J.A., Moskey, K.A., and Prince, P.S., 2015, Geologic controls on bedrock channel width in large, slowly-eroding catchments: Case study of the New River in eastern North America, Geomorphology, 230, 51-63.
  • Tranel, L.M., Spotila, J.A., Binnie, S.A., and Freeman, S.P.H., 2015, Quantifying variable erosion rates to understand the coupling of surface processes in the Teton Range, Wyoming, Geomorphology, 228, 409-420.
  • Mazza, S.E., Gazel, E., Johnson, E.A., Kunk, M.J., McAleer, R., Spotila, J.A., Bizimis, M., and Coleman, D.S., 2014, Volcanoes of the passive margin: The youngest magmatic event in eastern North America, Geology, 42, 483-486.
  • Niemi, N.A., Buscher, J., Spotila, J.A., House, M.A., and Kelley, S.A., 2013, Insights from low- temperature thermochronology into transpressional deformation and crustal exhumation along the San Andreas fault in the western Transverse Ranges, California, Tectonics, 32, 1-21.
  • Dixon, T.H., Schwartz, S., Protti, M., Gonzales, V., Newman, A., Marshall, J., and Spotila, J.A., 2013, Detailed data available for recent Costa Rica earthquake, EOS Transactions, 94, 17-18.
  • Prince, P.S., Spotila, J.A., 2013, Evidence of transient topographic disequilibrium in a landward passive margin river system: Knickpoints and paleolandscapes of the New River basin, southern Appalachians, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 38, 1685-1699.
  • Spotila, J.A., 2013, Glacially influenced tectonic geomorphology: The influence of the glacial buzz- saw on topography and orogenic systems, In: Shroder, J. (Editor in Chief), Owen, L.A. (Ed.), Treatise on Geomorphology, Academic Press, San Diego, CA, vol. 5, Tectonic Geomorphology, pp. 300-317.
  • Pavlis, T.L., Chapman, J.B., Bruhn, R.L., Ridgway, K., Worthington, L., Gulick, S., Spotila, J.A., 2012, Structure of the actively deforming fold-thrust belt of the St. Elias orogen with implications for glacial exhumation and three-dimensional tectonic processes, Geosphere, 8, 991-1019.
  • Spotila, J.A., 2012, Influence of drainage divide structure on the distribution of mountain peaks, Geology, 40, 855-858.
  • Prince, P.S., Spotila, J.A., and Henika, W.S., 2011, Stream capture as driver of transient landscape evolution in a tectonically inert setting, Geology, 39, 823-826.
  • Tranel, L.M., and Spotila, J.A., Waller, C., 2011, Evaluation of erosion variability and drainage basin relief using detrital apatite thermochronology in the Teton Range, Wyoming, Basin Research, 23, 571- 590.
  • Spotila, J.A., and Berger, A.L., 2010, Exhumation at orogenic indentor cornders under long-term glacial conditions: Example of the St. Elias Orogen, Southern Alaska, Tectonophysics, 490, 241-256.
  • Prince, P.S., Spotila, J.A., Henika, W.S., 2010, New evidence of the role of stream capture in active retreat of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, southern Appalachians, Geomorphology, 123, 305-319.
  • Binnie, S.A., Phillips, W.M., Summerfield, M.A., Fifield, L.K., and Spotila, J.A., 2010, Tectonic and climatic controls of denudation rates in mountainous terrain: The San Bernardino Mountains, California, Geomorphology, 118, 249-261.
  • Adams, B., Dietsch, C., Owen, L.A., Caffee, M., Spotila, J.A., and Haneberg, W.C., 2009, Exhumation and incision history of the Lahul Himalaya, northern India, based on (U-Th)/He thermochronometry and terrestrial cosmogenic nuclide dating techniques, Geomorphology, 107, 285-299.
  • McAleer, R.J., Spotila, J.A., Enkelmann, E., and Berger, A.L., 2009, Exhumation along the Fairweather fault, southeast Alaska, based on low-temperature thermochronometry, Tectonics, 28, TC1007, 17 p.
  • Binnie, S.A., Phillips, W.M., Summerfield, M.A., Fifield, L.K., and Spotila, J.A., 2008, Patterns of denudation through time in the San Bernardino Mountains, California: Implications for orogenesis, Earth Planetary Science Letters, 276, 62-72.
  • Haeussler, P.J., O'Sullivan, P., Berger, A.L., and Spotila, J.A., 2008, Neogene exhumation of the Tordrillo Mountains, Alaska, and correlations with Denali (Mount McKinley) , in Active Tectonics and Seismic Potential of Alaska, J. Freymueller, P. Haeussler, R. Wesson, and G. Ekstrom (eds.), Geophysical Monography 179, Amer. Geophys. Union, Washington, DC, 269-285.
  • Buscher, J.T., Berger, A.L., Spotila, J.A., 2008, Exhumation in the Chugach-Kenai mountain belt above the Aleutian subduction zone, southern Alaska, in Active Tectonics and Seismic Potential of Alaska, J. Freymueller, P. Haeussler, R. Wesson, and G. Ekstrom (eds.), Geophysical Monography 179, Amer. Geophys. Union, Washington, DC, 151-166.
  • Chapman, J.B., Pavlis, T.L., Gulick, S., Berger, A., Lowe, L., Spotila, J., Bruhn, R., Vorkink, M., Koons, P., Barker, A., Picornell, C., Ridgway, K., Hallet, B., Jaeger, J., and McCalpin, J., 2008, Neotectonics of the Yakutat collision: Changes in deformation driven by mass redistribution, in Active Tectonics and Seismic Potential of Alaska, J. Freymueller, P. Haeussler, R. Wesson, and G. Ekstrom (eds.), Geophysical Monography 179, Amer. Geophys. Union, Washington, DC, 65-81.
  • Berger, A.L., Gulick, S.P., Spotila, J.A., Upton, P., Jaeger, J.M., Chapman, J.B., Worthington, L.A., Pavlis, T.L., Ridgway, K.D., Willems, B., McAleer, R.J., 2008, Quaternary tectonic response to intensified glacial erosion in an orogenic wedge, Nature Geoscience (Article), 7 p.
  • Berger, A.L., and Spotila, J.A., 2008, Denudation and deformation of a glaciated orogenic wedge: The St. Elias orogen, Alaska, Geology, 36, 523-526.
  • Jessup, M.J., Newell, D.L., Cottle, J.M., Berger, A.L., and Spotila, J.A., 2008, Orogen-parallel extension and exhumation enhanced by denudation in the trans-Himalayan Arun River gorge, Ama Drime Massif, Tibet-Nepal, Geology, 36, 587-590.
  • Berger, A.L., Spotila, J.A., Chapman, J., Pavlis, T.L., and Enkelmann, E., 2008, Architecture, kinematics, and exhumation of a convergent orogenic wedge: A thermochronological investigation of tectonic-climatic interactions within the St. Elias orogen, Alaska, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 270, 13-24.
  • Meigs, A., Johnston, S., Garver, J., and Spotila, J., 2008, Crustal-scale structural architecture, shortening, and exhumation of an active, eroding orogenic wedge (Chugach/St. Elias Range, southern AK), Tectonics, 27, TC4003, 26 p.
  • Spotila, J.A., Niemi, N., Brady, R., House, M., Buscher, J., and Oskin, M., 2007, Long-term continental deformation associated with transpressive plate motion: The San Andreas fault, Geology, 35, 967-970.
  • Buscher, J.T., and Spotila, J.A., 2007, Near-field response to transpression along the southern San Andreas fault, based on exhumation of the northern San Gabriel Mountains, southern California, Tectonics, 26, TC5004, 15 p.
  • Spotila, J.A., House, M.A., Niemi, N.A., Brady, R.C., Oskin, M., and Buscher, J.T., 2007, Patterns of bedrock uplift along the San Andreas fault and implications for mechanisms of transpression, in Till, A.B., Roeske, S.M., Sample, J.C., and Foster, D.A., eds., Exhumation Associated with Continental Strike-Slip Systems, Geol. Soc. Amer. Special Paper 434, 15-33.
  • Ward, D.J., Spotila, J.A., Hancock, G., and Galbraith, J., 2005, New constraints on the incision history of the New River, Virginia, Geomorphology, 72, 54-72.
  • Spotila, J.A., 2005, Applications of low-temperature thermochronometry to tectonic geomorphology, based on examples from transpressional and convergent settings, in Reiners, P.W., ed., Low temperature thermochronometry: Techniques, interpretations, and applications, Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry, Mineral. Soc. Amer., 58, 449-466.
  • Brady, R.J., Spotila, J.A., 2005, Exhumation and tilting in the Northern California Coast Range associated with migration of the Mendocino Triple Junction: Southward younging (U-Th)/He in apatite ages due to a northward-migrating slab gap, Earth and Planet. Sci. Lett., 235, 107-122.
  • Kavage Adams, R., and Spotila, J.A., 2005, The form and function of headwater streams, based on field and modeling investigations in the southern Appalachian Mountains, Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, 30, 1521-1546.
  • Reed, J.S., Spotila, J.A., Eriksson, K.A., and Bodnar, R.J., 2005, The downs and ups of Pennsylvanian Strata: Central Appalachian Basin, Basin Research, 17, 259-268.
  • Spotila, J.A., Buscher, J.T., Meigs, A., and Reiners, P.W., 2004, Long-term glacial erosion of active mountain belts: The Chugach/St. Elias Range, Alaska, Geology, 32, 501-504.
  • Spotila, J.A., G.C. Bank, C.W. Naeser, P.W. Reiners, N.D. Naeser, B.S. Henika, 2004, Origin of the Blue Ridge escarpment along the passive margin of eastern North America, Basin Research, 16,41-63.
  • Spotila, J.A., and Anderson, K.B., 2004, Fault interaction at the junction of the Transverse Ranges and eastern California shear zone: A case study of intersecting faults, Tectonophysics, 379, 43-60.
  • Spotila, J.A., 2004, Crustal Deformation, in Goudie, A., ed., Encyclopedia of Geomorphology, 0415 27298X, International Association of Geomorphologists, Routledge, London and New York, p.201-203.
  • Spotila, J.A., 2004, Orogenesis, in Goudie, A., ed., Encyclopedia of Geomorphology, 0415 27298X, International Association of Geomorphologists, Routledge, London and New York, p.731-734.
  • Anderson, K.B., Spotila, J.A., and Hole, J.A., 2003, Application of geomorphic analysis and ground- penetrating radar to characterization of paleoseismic sites in dynamic alluvial environments: an example from southern California, Tectonophysics, 368, 25-32.
  • Spotila, J.A., House, M.A., Blythe, A.E., Niemi, N.A., and Bank, G.C., 2002, Controls on the erosion and geomorphic evolution of the San Bernardino and San Gabriel Mountains, southern California, Geological Society of America Special Paper, 365, 205-230.
  • Blythe, A.E., House, M.A., and Spotila, J.A., 2002, Low-temperature thermochronlogy of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains, southern California: Constraining structural evolution, Geological Society of America Special Paper, 365, 231-250.
  • Spotila, J.A., Farley, K.A., Yule, J.D., and Reiners, P.W., 2001, Near-field transpressive deformation along the San Andreas fault zone in southern California, based on exhumation constrained by (U-Th)/He dating, Journal of Geophysical Research, 106, 30,909-30,922.
  • Spotila, J.A., and Sieh, K., 2000, Architecture of transpressional thrust faulting in the San Bernardino Mountains, southern California, from deformation of a deeply weathered surface, Tectonics, 19, 589-615. Ebel, J.E., and Spotila, J.A., 1999, Modern earthquake activity and the Norumbega fault zone, Geological Society of America Special Paper, 331, 195-202.
  • Spotila, J.A., Farley, K.A., and Sieh, K., 1998, Uplift and erosion of the San Bernardino Mountains associated with transpression along the San Andreas fault, California, as constrained by radiogenic helium thermochronometry, Tectonics, 17, 360-378. Spotila, J.A., and Sieh, K., 1995, Geologic investigations of a "slip gap" in the surficial ruptures of the 1992 Landers earthquake, southern California, Journal of Geophysical Research, 100, 543-559.
  • Sieh, K., Jones, L., Hauksson, E., Hudnut, K., Eberhart-Phillips, D., Heaton, T., Hough, S., Hutton, K., Kanamori, H., Lilje, A., Lindvall, S., McGill, S., Mori, J., Rubin, C., Spotila, J.A., Stock, J., Thio, H.K.,Treiman, J., Wernicke, B., Zachariasen, J., 1993, Near-field investigations of the Landers earthquake sequence, April to July, 1992, Science, 260, 171-176.

I am currently Editor of GEOLOGY

Current University Positions

  • Faculty Senate
  • President of the College of Science Faculty Association (COSFA)
  • Commission on Faculty Affairs (CFA)
  • University Curriculum Committee for General Education (UCCGE)

Academic Profiles