On Friday, Jan. 9, oncologist Richard Béliveau left his blacked-out lab at the University of Quebec at Montreal to face an ice-encrusted and nearly-paralyzed city. Millions of Quebeckers were without power that evening, but Béliveau trusted the building's emergency generator to run the five ultra-low temperature freezers used by the 26 researchers in his lab to store precious tumor and antibody samples. On Saturday, however, the generator had to be switched off after it set fire to the building's roof. The freezers started to warm up.
Meanwhile, across town, Mark Romer, manager of McGill University's phytotron, was contemplating ways to prevent over a thousand valuable research and collection plants from turning into frozen samples. "For the first time in 10 years we lost both heat (from the university's steam generation plant) and power," says Romer.
This meant the artificial lighting and temperature controls in the growth chambers were out and the temperature in the greenhouse was dropping.
"Heat was the more serious problem. All we were told was that it was a long-term loss, that the city had cut off water to the steam plant," says Romer. "In very cold weather, say -20°C, we'd have had to haul the plants out of the greenhouse right away." Fortunately the temperature that night stayed near zero and so Romer waited.
The heat did come back to the phytotron seven hours later, and most plants survived. At UQAM an emergency team set up by the university worked intensively over 48 hours to preserve the frozen medical materials, transferring some of Béliveau's samples to a nearby hospital and tracking down what had become a rare commodity indeed, a portable generator.
In spite of many other anxious situations that arose over eight days of extremely reduced power, Montreal universities weathered the ice storm well. But it was clear that last-minute scrambling and luck, as much as foresight and hard work, kept some close-calls from turning into costly disasters. As a result, how to plan for the next black-out has become, in university labs as elsewhere, more than just an academic question.
In the biological and medical sciences, concern has focused on the ultra-low temperature freezers. As molecular biologist Tom Bureau of McGill University explained, "When tissues are prepared for DNA or protein extraction we put back-up in the -80° C freezer. The samples will be stable at that temperature for years or decades, and we continue to rely on those reserves. Most of the tissue itself is worth nothing in terms of dollars, but it can represent many years of research."
Bureau had, in fact, previous cause to doubt the reliability of back-up generators. In September 1996 McGill had experienced a campus-wide two-day power outage, during which the generator serving the biology department failed as well. "I didn't lose much during that outage," says Bureau, "as I'd just started at McGill. But I could see the handwriting on the wall." As a result Bureau took the unusual move of buying a liquid carbon dioxide cooling system to serve as a back-up to the emergency power.
A related issue is that certain freezers and refrigerators, generally those containing less crucial material than the ultra-lows, are not on emergency circuits. With a partial inventory of the 1998 storm damages completed, McGill's biology department, for example, estimated the cost of spoiled enzymes, chemicals, and teaching specimens at over $15,000. At Concordia University's biology department, the damages from two freezers that stopped running totalled about $12,000.
Chemicals are replaceable and, in light of the more serious problems that could have developed from the ice storm, researchers were keeping such losses in perspective. Nonetheless the potentially contentious question of what and whose equipment needs back-up power has been raised.
"More generators will be bought and maintained," reports McGill Dean of Science Alan Shaver, "but the capacity will always be limited. Each department will have to review what should be on emergency circuits."
Shaver is urging departmental safety committees to take on this task, as well as examining the specifics of dealing with a long-term outage and integrating their plans with that of the university.
"Communication, internally and externally, is the most important step," he emphasizes. "Phone chains have to be created to keep everyone in touch. Safety committees need to monitor buildings closely and know who to turn to when problems occur."
Romer agrees with the importance of communicating. "I've already ordered my cell phone," he says, and he's considering a modem for the phytotron's computer that would allow the operating and alarm information to be sent to his home via the cellular phone network.
In another vein, Romer would also like to see more consistent efforts on the part of individual researchers in backing-up their material. "We encourage people to keep spares of their plants ... spare cultures, spare seeds. It's good science."
As for Béliveau, he reports that UQAM will be purchasing a back-up freezer with its own power supply. With respect to managing a crisis, however, he underlines the value of group efforts, both for solving problems and maintaining morale.
"It was a horrible experience to watch months of research go down the drain," says Béliveau, "but the university took the situation seriously and the support I received from the emergency team was reassuring."
Deborah Schoen is a freelance science writer in Montreal.