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Dust, Dirt, and Bird Feces: The Dirty Side of Creating a Geothermal Map

National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Andrés Ruzo is back in the field doing research to create the first geothermal map of northern Peru. Follow along as his collaborator and wife Sofia reports from the field about their ensuing adventures.   When my family asked me what Andrés and I had been up to for the past...

National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Andrés Ruzo is back in the field doing research to create the first geothermal map of northern Peru. Follow along as his collaborator and wife Sofia reports from the field about their ensuing adventures.


Abandoned dormitories, now home to bats, at the petroleum lot where we are working. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

When my family asked me what Andrés and I had been up to for the past few days on a recent Skype call, I answered, “We have been baking in an aluminum oven in the middle of the desert for three days.” It seems like a far-fetched description, but it is in fact quite literal.

Andrés and I have been cooped up in a giant warehouse with aluminum walls for three days. Civilization is a half-hour, extremely bumpy truck ride away. We work inside this infernal pit from morning until evening, and we emerge covered from head to boot full of dirt, dust, and pigeon feces, the latter of which covers the floor, walls, and shelves of the warehouse. It mixes with the pungent smell of dust and sweat that hangs over the entire place.

The reason we are in this place of torment is because the oil company with which we are working keeps their “cutting samples” in this warehouse, i.e. the rock samples that the company excavates as it drills thousands of feet deep to create each oil well. These cutting samples are important to the creation of a geothermal map, which could also be described as a “thermal conductivity” map. That just means cutting sample analysis reveals how different layers of the earth conduct heat, which then indicates how heat flows through the upper crust of the earth. Essentially, this is what a geothermal map is—a map of how heat flows through the upper crust of the earth. Therefore, before we can even go out into the field and log wells, Andrés has to prepare by working with petroleum companies to take samples of their cutting samples to analyze back in Dallas, Texas.

Andrés must also gather each well’s geological and geophysical logs from the oil and gas companies to complement the data we ourselves gather when we log wells. He will then take the logs and cutting samples, and analyze all of them for each well back in Dallas. With all this data, he can then begin to create the geothermal map of northern Peru.

Well #11142's cutting samples, as well as a sample of the pigeon feces in the foreground. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

The first time we opened the enormous doors of the warehouse, we had to wait for the giant cloud of dust to settle before looking in. The warehouse hadn’t been opened for the past two years, and you could immediately tell by the smell. I looked around at the endless rows of boxes, some overturned with soil spilling out of them, others neatly lining the racks several feet above our heads. The manager of the warehouse handed us our helmets, offered his assistance if we should need it, and before we could take him up on his offer, saluted us and scurried off.

Endless rows of disorganized boxes we had to search through to find the samples we needed. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

By midday, the heat was overwhelming. We were literally in a giant microwave, the aluminum walls of the warehouse creating an oven around us, with nary a hole to let in a gust of wind. While Andrés waited below, I climbed the shelves to bring down the boxes of rock samples so we could line them across the floor. I kept hearing a noise near my head as I peaked into the crevices and corners of the warehouse, looking for the boxes of the wells we needed amongst hundreds of boxes piled everywhere. The noises kept getting louder and more frantic, and sounded like a mix between a chirp and a squeak. I didn’t worry, as I imagined the noises were coming from the same birds that were responsible for the dried-up pigeon feces I kept having to wipe off the boxes (and on which we sat all day, since it was everywhere). It wasn’t until later that the guard informed us that the noises were coming from a large nest of rats.

For three days, we sweated and worked in this infernal pit of dust, feces, rats, and the two scorpions that Andrés found as he was working amongst the piles of boxes. Andrés had to locate which wells were most important, take out the samples he needed from the cores, and organize all the data on an Excel spreadsheet so he could ascertain we had a good representation of each region’s layers.  Sometimes the samples we expected to be in the boxes didn’t exist, so he had to go back to the well’s corresponding boxes and decide which samples we needed to use instead.

Andres choosing samples. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

We then painstakingly poured piles of individual rock samples onto pieces of paper . . .

Taking samples of the cutting samples. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

which we then folded . . .

Folding paper filled with cutting samples. Photo courtesy Andrés Ruzo.

and poured into a Ziploc bag.

Carefully pouring cutting samples into labeled bags. Photo courtesy Andrés Ruzo.

Finally, we labeled the bags with the well name, name of the rock formation (layer of earth), the depth in feet of the formation from which it was extracted, and the number of the bag.

When we finished each well’s collection of rocks samples, we double wrapped each bag and taped it, set the bags aside, and put each box back where we found it. The sampling of each well’s cutting samples took approximately one hour per well. When we finished this afternoon, both Andrés and I agreed that this has been one of the most challenging tasks of the project so far. I am not sure whether it will be harder than logging the wells out in the field for eight hours straight in desert climate, but I will be able to tell you for certain after tomorrow, when we log our first well!

Before I head to dinner to enjoy Máncora’s famous ceviche, I do have to brag a bit about Andrés! Even though we had a tight schedule to keep yesterday, and we were both worn out from all the work, he took the time to save a bird’s life. He noticed a Blue-footed Booby sitting on the beach, and it wasn’t moving. Rather than leaving it and heading on our way to work, he asked two of the hotel staff to help him corral the bird to the hotel patio. He bought the bird some fish, and checked up on it as soon as we got back from work.

Andres taking care of the Blue-footed Booby. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

It turns out the bird was malnourished, a consequence of the overfishing in this region, a huge problem in northern Peru, which represents less that 0.1% of the earth’s ocean, but produces more than 10% of the world’s fishing. It is a sobering reality, and Andrés and I are eyewitness of its depressing consequences every day. Our friends at Pacifico Adventures here in Máncora made an excellent Spanish-language documentary, called “Madre Mar,” about overfishing here in Máncora, and I invite readers to watch it. The overfishing has left much of the wildlife here struggling to find food, like the Blue-footed Booby we found. When we got back from work today, the bird, well-nourished and visibly stronger, was able to get up and fly away.

On the road to recovery. Photo courtesy Sofia Ruzo.

It was a sad reminder of how much damage human beings can inflict on our ecosystem when there is no education or incentives to fish in a sustainable way. On a brighter note, however, it was a beautiful reminder for me of one reason why I love being married and working with my husband—as an explorer, he approaches the world with a passionate curiosity that leads him to see details that the majority of people don’t notice; as a geologist, his respect for nature’s power and his understanding of how man can work alongside nature is inspiring. Whether it be a rock that fascinates him or a Blue-footed Booby that endears him, I am blessed that our mission is one that brings us intimately close to the earth’s natural beauty—even if it does mean I get a bit of bird poop in my hair.

You can now join the Geothermal Map of Peru Facebook group and follow us on Twitter @AndeanMemoirs


Learn More

Earlier Posts From Sofia Ruzo

Andrés Ruzo Profile

National Geographic Young Explorers Grants

Peru Photos


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Sofia Ruzo
I am currently working as the field assistant, photographer/videographer, and media outreach coordinator for the project, "The Geothermal Map of Peru" led by my husband, NG Young Explorer Andres Ruzo. I am first-generation American, as my parents immigrated to Miami, Florida to escape civil wars in their countries of Cuba and Nicaragua. I graduated with degrees in English and in Marketing/Management, with minors in Spanish and Art History, from Hillsdale College in Michigan. I moved from Michigan to Texas to obtain my Master's degree in Advertising, specializing in Account Planning, from Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, where I met Andres. This blog is key to our mission to bring awareness to geothermal energy as a renewable, base-load, environmentally-friendly energy source, and I hope it can educate, entertain, and challenge readers to change the world for the better.