José Cerca left his lab on the University of California, Berkeley campus Wednesday evening, the fateful day Pacific Gas and Electric began intentionally cutting power to wide swathes of Northern California. Cerca, an evolutionary biologist working at school’s Evolab, thought his workday was finished.
But then Cerca ran into his distressed boss who said, ominously, “We have to move everything.”
The news came that PG&E’s intentional blackouts — a new disaster strategy to limit catastrophic, climate change-enhanced fires during the state’s notoriously windy fall season — would cause Berkeley’s research laboratories to soon lose power. That’s terrible news for biologists, many of whom freeze collections of specimens, cells, and genetic material.
“Imagine eight huge freezers with 30 years of organized research,” explained Cerca, who recently joined the lab. “We have hundreds of thousands of spiders in vials organized.”
Their lab had to move quickly. They were able to ship one large freezer (larger than a typical fridge) across the bay to San Francisco, and identified a building they were told had back-up power. Over the course of five hours they moved the frozen, arduously-collected archive of arthropods, many from the Hawaiian Islands.
“It’s like me telling you to move all your furniture,” Cerca said.
Much of the Berkeley campus still lacks electricity. “We are without power to most buildings as of late last night [Wednesday],” Bob Sanders, the manager of science communications at Berkeley, said via email Thursday morning.
Fortunately, there is enough university-generated emergency power to supply electricity to essential freezers and refrigerators, Sanders said.
But there certainly isn’t enough power for the campus to function. For the second day in a row, classes were canceled for the prestigious university’s 43,201 students.
“It’s like me telling you to move all your furniture.”
Foreseeing power shortages, the school also arranged for trucks to ship invaluable, frozen research specimens from its labs across the bay to UC San Francisco, the school’s sister campus, said Sanders. James Olzmann, an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology, watched moving trucks load his lab’s frozen cell collection.
“Moving trucks taking our -80 freezers to @ucsf because our @UCBerkeley building doesn’t have backup power and PG&E is shutting off the power (up to 5 days?!),” Olzmann tweeted on Wednesday afternoon.
Moving trucks taking our -80 freezers to @ucsf because our @UCBerkeley building doesn’t have backup power and PG&E is shutting off the power (up to 5 days?!). Incredibly disruptive to our research.😔 Big shoutout to @RobertoZoncu for letting us put our cells in his incubators! pic.twitter.com/9r4HmJ2XdM
— James Olzmann (@OlzmannLab) October 9, 2019
UC Berkeley appears to be taking the power loss quite seriously.
“While PG&E’s disconnection of the University of California, Berkeley campus from its transmission grid is enormously disruptive to our research enterprise, we are doing everything we can to protect our critical research assets,” Randy Katz, the university’s vice chancellor for research, said in a statement sent to Mashable. “Beyond life safety being our highest priority, the campus’ highest research priority is to protect our research animals, then our experimental specimens, and finally our reagents.”
It’s unclear when the campus will have normal power again. “We may be up tomorrow, or we may not,” said Sanders. “It’s up to PG&E.”
The utility’s large-scale blackouts are a contentious climate adaptation. With relentlessly rising temperatures, already fire-prone California has grown increasingly parched, making it more likely to burn. The use of a hammer recently sparked the largest fire in Golden State history.
For those of you who don’t know, @UCBerkeley is about to lose power for the next 24 hours and potentially longer as PG&E proactively shuts off transmission lines in anticipation of extremely dangerous fire conditions. So we’re all going to be a bit distracted.
— Michael Eisen (@mbeisen) October 9, 2019
Since 1972, the amount of land burned in California has increased fivefold. Overall in the Western U.S., today’s fires burn for weeks longer than they did in the 1980s, and they’re burning twice as much land than in the 1990s.
Following the nightmarish Camp Fire in 2018, which was by far the deadliest blaze in state history, PG&E is hellbent on avoiding future liability or catastrophe should its corroded, antiquated equipment fail and send sparks onto the dried-out ground. When there is potential for extreme fire weather, fueled by notoriously dry and hot winds, the utility may continue to cut power — which can mean some 2 million people, or more, go powerless.
It’s a new, evolving, disaster mitigation strategy. And it emphasizes how, even in one of the wealthiest and most advanced economies in the world, civilization is ill-equipped for a warming climate.
“Society is woefully unprepared for the impacts of climate change,” Leah Stokes, who researches public policy and climate change at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Mashable on Wednesday.
As for Cerca’s lab specimens, he can only hope they’re still frozen. The university has asked everyone to stay off-campus to avoid overloading the emergency power system.
Amid Wednesday’s discord and surprise, he received mix-signals about whether the building where they stored frozen specimens had ample back-up power. But Cerca and his lab will soon learn how the arthropods faired.
“You know how chaos goes,” he said.