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Massive California power outage triggers chaos in science labs

Researchers without access to back-up power scramble to save experiments and invaluable specimens.

California’s largest utility company shut off power to more than a million people across the northern part of the state on 9 and 10 October. The outage sent scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, scrambling to save specimens and experiments.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), based in San Francisco, California, planned the outage to reduce the risk of wildfires. The utility company cited forecasts of strong, dry winds of the sort that have fanned devastating blazes across the region in recent years. PG&E has acknowledged that its equipment probably sparked the catastrophic Camp Fire, California’s deadliest known wildfire, which killed 86 people in 2018. The company has said that the power outage could last several days, frustrating residents — including some researchers.

“Our federal grants require campus to have facilities to support our work when the damn power goes out. It’s ridiculous,” tweeted Noah Whiteman, an evolutionary biologist at Berkeley. The university cancelled classes on 9 and 10 October in light of the power outage, and told faculty members not to come to campus.

The neighbouring Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) closed its main site on 9 October. It will remain shuttered until further notice, according to a notice on the LBNL website. Officials estimate that the earliest they will be able to reopen the lab is 14 October.

Keeping their cool
Many labs at the University of California, Berkeley, lack reliable back-up power. Some researchers are taking drastic measures to preserve samples and supplies that require refrigeration. James Olzmann, a metabolic researcher at Berkeley, loaded his lab’s freezers onto trucks on 9 October and moved them to facilities at the nearby University of California, San Francisco, which still has power….[ ]

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