Passionate communicator

He has discovered meteorite craters and won prizes for his contributions to geoscience. But Fridtjof Riis is primarily concerned with sharing – both knowledge and acclaim.
  • Bente Bergøy and Emile Ashley (photos)

Fridtjof Riis

“Geology is the mother of all natural sciences, you know.”


Now in his 60s, Riis has been a geologist at the NPD for virtually his entire professional career. He knew some of those already working there, and was persuaded – or inspired – to apply for a job in petroleum administration.

Many geologists have served with the NPD before going on to work in the industry. But Riis belongs to an exclusive group which has stayed.

“Opportunities are very good here for studying subjects which interest you in depth, and flexibility is great,” he explains. “The team is small and you deal with the whole NCS.

“That gives you a huge overview. At the same time, the NPD performs an important role in society.”

Since joining the directorate in 1981, Riis has also spanned a very wide range of activities, including exploration and reservoir technology for most of Norway’s offshore oil and gas fields.

In addition come 36 published scientific articles in journals and books, including nine as lead author.

Riis has a strong social and international commitment, and is active in union and solidarity work. He is also involved in the Oil for Development programme at the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad).

“Developing countries learn from us, but we learn from them as well,” he affirms. “The differences between Norway and other oil producers around the world aren’t as great as you might think. Geology unites us.”



Riis has a wide range of interests, including mathematics, physics, astronomy, plants and animal life. He originally intended to become a botanist, but took a geology course, got a summer job at the Norwegian Geological Survey (NGU) – and was hooked.

Asked whether he only looks at rocks when out for a walk, he says that other things also attract his attention. But his hikes undoubtedly have different objectives compared with most people.

He is interested in geology both on land and offshore, and his work on regional models for uplift and erosion is described as groundbreaking.

These contributions include new understanding of how Norway was subject to land-scale uplift in the Cenozoic – the most recent of Earth’s geological eras, which began 66 million years ago.

That in turn has provided a better grasp of continental shelf geology and petroleum plays.

Riis says that his most interesting recent project has been the CO2 Atlas, an overview of suitable locations for secure long-term underground storage of carbon dioxide on the NCS.

“This publication turned out very differently than we’d expected when starting the job on behalf of the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy,” he explains.

“We were to document what we knew about the sub-surface, with geologists and reservoir engineers working together to look at discoveries, fields and reservoir formations.

“Regional geology was also updated, and the result became a geological textbook which describes the continental shelf in a new way.”

The atlas attracted great attention in the world at large. Although other countries have produced similar publications, none are so detailed.

“We could create this work because we had access to large quantities of offshore data,” Riis explains. “In that respect, we occupy a unique position in Norway.”

He is currently studying how water, oil and gas behave in the sub-surface over long periods of geological time, and serves in the NPD’s team for Johan Sverdrup in the North Sea.

“Sverdrup is a big field, which will generate income – and technology – over a long time,” he observes. “It’s important that decisions taken now, in the first phase, lay the basis for a good production strategy throughout its producing life.”



Colleagues describe Riis as very learned and intellectual, passionate about his subject, and an able communicator who is happy to share knowledge with others and give them a boost.

And he often provides support for younger and less experienced geologists, says Janka Rom, discipline coordinator for geosciences at the NPD.

“We know it’s safe to let them work with Fridtjof. He’s been, and still is, a mentor for many – both at work and as MSc students at various universities. He’s a good educator.”

Riis himself notes that a change of generations is currently taking place, and that many NPD personnel approaching retirement have been there a long time.

He is keen to ensure a transfer of experience, to give those who will be taking over valuable ballast in continuing the job of maximising value for Norwegian society from the petroleum sector.

His preference for inspiring, sharing knowledge with and realising the potential of others, rather than promoting himself, was also one of the reasons why he won the Brøgger prize in 2014.

The highest honour conferred by the Geological Society of Norway, this was presented to Riis for “contributing at a high scholarly level to Norwegian geology and geoscience in general through a lifelong commitment”.

While that award was a professional accolade from fellow geologists, the Hjelmeland prize was given to him in 2011 by Hjelmeland local authority for identifying the Ritland crater.

This is one of two meteorite crashes discovered on the Norwegian mainland, and the local community has valued the positive way Riis presented his find.

Together with scientists from the department of geoscience at the University of Oslo (UiO), he succeeded in documenting that a chunk of rock had hit Vormedalsheia north-east of Stavanger.

Travelling at high speed, it struck so forcefully that a 350-metre-deep crater measuring 2.7 kilometres in diameter was gouged out in this highland region.

“Geologists have long been interested in the area around Ritland,” explains Riis, who has himself spent much time there. “Well preserved fossils found in 1950s theoretically shouldn’t have existed there.”

His theory that the distinctive rock formations and landscape features found locally were caused by a meteorite impact was finally confirmed in 2008.

That was when Henning Dypvik at the UiO found shocked quartz while subjecting rock samples from Ritland to microscopic examination.

This type of rock forms in grains of quartz under very high pressure (five to 10 gigapascals (GPa), equal to 150-330 kilometres below the Earth’s surface) from a meteorite strike.

“Hjelmeland council has made good provision for visitors wanting to see the crater,” says Riis. “It also organises guided tours, and I sometimes take groups with me for a look as well.”

Although Riis comes across as a fairly modest man, he finds it gratifying that his work has attracted attention.

“These are two very different awards, and it’s a matter of pride to have received them both. I feel that creates an obligation to keep going.”

A natural question is what he thinks will happen with future recruitment to the geosciences now that the petroleum sector is experiencing difficult times.

He emphasises that the discipline covers much more than oil and gas. “Geologists are always going to be needed.

Topics: Geology