By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The ironic thing about Jones' comments is that, as she'll freely tell you, even the best-informed seismologist would be hard-pressed to explain the way an earthquake works; it's one of the great unresolved geologic mysteries, and a major reason why many scientists doubt prediction will ever be a viable tool. This, in turn, suggests another irony, since throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, prediction was seriously pursued and was considered an achievable goal. The most famous prediction story is that of the 7.3 earthquake that struck Haicheng, China, on February 4, 1975; nine and a half hours before the shaking started, an alert was issued by the provincial government, which based its warning on a number of factors, including several days of foreshocks, as well as "changes in ground water which were usually changes in the level or color of the well water . . . [and] the appearance of a low ground fog." Yet if Haicheng represents the first documented, officially predicted earthquake, the success has not been replicable, and despite a wide range of experiments, it remains the only one. More common are the USGS's experiences in places like Palmdale, where in the mid-1970s a large ground deformation called the Palmdale Bulge was briefly thought to indicate mounting stress on the San Andreas, or Parkfield, a town in Central California where magnitude 6 temblors were found to take place at roughly 22-year intervals -- until, that is, the Survey moved monitoring equipment into position and, between 1988 and 1993, declared a series of earthquake warnings, none of which ever panned out.
Part of the problem with prediction, according to Jones, has to do with people's expectations; for this reason, Parkfield, despite yielding much valuable information, is considered a failure, while the Chinese efforts, which have never again lived up to Haicheng, are regarded as a success. "I could predict unlimited earthquakes in Southern California," Jones says, "as long as I allowed myself an unlimited number of false alarms. That's what the Chinese do; they don't think false alarms are relevant. But I don't believe, in Los Angeles, you can have false alarms without losing credibility. Two false alarms and you're dead meat." Jones has a point, but as always with geology, there's more than one side to the story, and for a sense of that, all you need to do is talk to Paul Silver, a staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, who continues to seek a viable prediction model, focusing on "precursors," like those seen at Haicheng. Silver is an experienced observer of such phenomena; in 1992, he co-authored a paper tracing "the co-seismic response" between Calistoga's Old Faithful Geyser and several Northern California temblors, including the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. According to his data, one to three days before an earthquake, ground-water variations alter the geyser's eruption intervals, which return to normal once the earthquake has passed. "It's suggestive of a causal connection," Silver says with classic scientific understatement, but while he hesitates to give this too much import, he does have some ideas about what it means. He and many of his Carnegie Institution colleagues, he admits later, believe that earthquakes can be predicted: "At this stage we're nowhere near that, but even if Haicheng is the only verifiable prediction, one is more than zero. It has been done."
What's telling about Silver's remarks is not so much whether he's right or wrong, but how, in relation to the sentiments of his more skeptical colleagues, they again highlight the intuitive nature of geology, the way the most basic pieces of the seismologic puzzle remain adrift, like tectonic plates of the mind. It makes me wonder if, on some level, there's a place for these conflicting perspectives to fit together, one where science and prediction may find a common ground. For his part, Silver cautions that "at this stage, it's really important to distinguish between quackery and science," but even as I hear him, ã I can't help thinking that one could be a precursor to the next. These days, for instance, it might be impossible to imagine geology, or earthquakes, existing outside a system of plates and faults, but when tectonic theory was introduced 30 years ago, most scientists reacted with ridicule and disbelief. If the entire structure of geology could shift so radically with the advent of a single concept, why can't it shift once more, making science out of areas we currently define as myth? That's a question I can't answer, but when I mention it to Linda Curtis, she smiles, as if this is a logic loop she's heard before. Then she suggests that if I want to spin it out a little further, I probably ought to talk to Charlotte King.
CHARLOTTE KING WANTS TO MAKE SURE I understand she's not a psychic. "I'm a biological sensitive," she explains one night from her home in Salem, Oregon, in a voice that drips like honey through the long-distance line. "I'm a person who responds to changes in the Earth's electromagnetic field." Since 1976, she says, she has been able to hear low-frequency sound waves -- a foghornlike moaning she refers to simply as "The Sound" -- and, in conjunction with physical symptoms ranging from anxiety and irritability to nosebleeds, muscle spasms, headaches and severe stomach or heart pain, use them to predict earthquakes and volcanic eruptions with a rate of accuracy that, by her accounting, comes in somewhere around 85 percent. It's not that King has anything against psychics; she believes in them, and even in the possibility of psychic prediction, but emphasizes that it has nothing to do with her. "What I do is measurable," she tells me pointedly. "You can see it. And it has been confirmed again and again."