By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
"Anywhere?" I ask, voice rising in a challenge. My own credulity notwithstanding, this just goes too far. "Last night, there were five random murders in Los Angeles in the space of an hour."
For a moment, I hear nothing but the buzzing of the telephone. Then King comes back with what seems like the only possible answer: "And there were two earthquakes in Chile today."
JUST BEFORE WE HANG UP, KING GIVES ME the Web address of Jim Berkland, the predictor best known not just for forecasting Loma Prieta, but for getting it on record; on October 13, 1989, five days before the fact, he was profiled in the Gilroy Dispatch for predicting a "World Series Quake." Berkland is, in some ways, King's polar opposite, although in other ways, they're a lot alike. For one thing, he, too, looks at animal anomalies, tracking the behavior of whales and homing pigeons, and pinpointing the locations of his predictions by checking local newspapers to find reports of missing pets. For another, he shares that fine, hard edge of obsession, like a latter-day William Money, shouting imprecations into the wind. The target of Berkland's invective, however, is not some distant municipality, but the members of the scientific establishment, who, he believes, have systematically derailed any serious discussion of prediction because it doesn't fit their model of how things work. For Berkland, this is a particularly loaded subject, since he's been a geologist for much of his career. Now 68, he was with the USGS from 1958 until 1964, then spent five years at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation before hiring on as official geologist for Santa Clara County in late 1973. (He retired in 1994.) "It has long mystified me," Berkland says of the Survey. "I have seen them bend the data, change the data, lose the data. After I went public, I had meetings and talks canceled."
Berkland tells me all this in a fast and jagged monologue, like he's trying to say as much as possible before someone shouts him down. After one conversation, he follows up with a 16-page fax containing charts and newspaper clippings, as well as the most recent issue of his earthquake newsletter, Syzygy, which features letters, bits of personal history, a small photograph of the author and a running commentary on his forecasts for the year. Syzygy takes its name from the central tenet of Berkland's forecasting theory, which has to do with the effect of the moon's gravitational pull on what are known as earth tides, especially during the "seismic window" that, Berkland says, opens up to three days before or on a full moon. Virtually all his predictions are bound by such a window, a period in which syzygy (when the sun, Earth and full moon line up together) and perigee (when the moon is nearest the Earth) can increase ocean tides from 20 to 100 percent. "When the Earth is between the moon and sun," Berkland explains, excitement striating his voice, "earth tides can create bulges of 18 inches on either side of the planet. I began to wonder if it was possible for the tides to stretch fault lines. Ground deformation can be a sign of impending earthquakes. It happened in Long Beach in 1933, and also in 1964 in Niigata, Japan."
The idea that tides and seismicity may be related -- that earthquakes can be triggered by the moon's gravitational pull -- is hardly a new one; in 1975, while a graduate student, Caltech geophysicist Tom Heaton wrote a paper suggesting a possible correlation between tides and "shallow thrust earthquakes" (a theory he later retracted because his research could not be independently verified), and as recently as December, a paper presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco argued that lunar gravity might be a factor in about 1 percent of earthquakes, although, statistically speaking, such a figure is negligible at best. For Berkland, however, there's a major difference between admitting that something may be true and accepting it as common sense. The first time I talk to him, he tells me "with 80 percent confidence" that a 3.5-5.5 magnitude earthquake will strike within 140 miles of San Jose between December 1 and December 8, and on December 4 it happens -- a 4.1 in Berkeley, the strongest temblor to hit the Bay Area in four months (and an event that, according to the USGS, had a random likelihood of about one in five). When I call Berkland back, he tells me we're in an active window, and that I should expect a 4.0-6.0 in Los Angeles before December 10. By way of evidence, he mentions that 72 dogs have gone missing in Southern California in recent days, as compared with 58 before the Northridge quake. Listening to him, I feel a tingle of excitement, like I've been promised something I didn't know I could have. It's not that I am hoping for an earthquake, exactly, but there is a part of me that wants to believe.
Then, two nights before the close of Berkland's window, I'm driving home along the broad rolling curves of Sunset Boulevard, heading east through Beverly Hills on my way to West Hollywood. On the radio, R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon" plays like a soundtrack, and as I stare at the office towers silhouetted against the edge of the Strip, I start to think about the fault that runs beneath this pavement, wondering what would happen if it slipped. Cresting the small hill at Doheny, I catch sight of the moon, hanging fat as a cocktail onion, low and close in the sky. It's so big it fills my entire windshield, and for a moment, I can almost see Berkland's theory in action, see the moon in the closest part of its orbit, exerting its tidal pull. Meanwhile, "Man on the Moon" fades into a series of tight, martial drum rolls, and Michael Stipe starts singing, "That's great, it starts with an earthquake" -- the first line of "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." All of a sudden, I feel like a trap door has opened up inside me, like I've been given a set of signs. I look around: Life goes on as normal. Club kids hang out in front of the Rainbow and the Roxy, and traffic moves past at a crawl. But in my head, it's as if reality itself has started to slip, as if somewhere out on Sunset, I've stumbled across a strange, intuitive kind of logic, and what it's telling me is that tonight's the night.