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
In spite of its elaborate presentation, Shou's prediction model is relatively simple, constructed around the idea that as stresses build throughout a fault zone prior to an earthquake, the subterranean rock will start to crack, leaving space for water to collect. When enough pressure accumulates, water levels -- and, more important, temperatures -- go up, producing vapor that gets pushed to the surface of the fault. "Through a gap," Shou explains in an unpublished manuscript, Earthquake Clouds and Short Term Prediction, "the vapor rises up and floats following the surface wind. Meeting the cold air, it forms a cloud. The shape of the gap and surface current may endow the cloud with a special configuration like a snake, a wave, a feather, or a lantern etc., which will be able to be distinguished from weather clouds." There's a certain traditional elegance to such a theory, for in much the same way as animal sensitivity, clouds have been part of the earthquake-prediction picture since there was an earthquake-prediction picture; 2,000 years ago, Aristotle suggested that they might function as precursors, and the Chinese and Italians have also made correlations between earthquakes and clouds. In his work, Shou cites one example: "There was a document in the Lon-De County Chronicle, China, 300 years ago (recompiled in 1935): 'It was sunny and warm; the sky was blue and clear. Suddenly, there appeared threads of black clouds spanning the sky like a long snake. The clouds stayed for a long time, so there would be an earthquake.'"
As if to illustrate what he's written, Shou hands me half a dozen photographs, each of which portrays an earthquake cloud. A couple look like feathers, and one does, in fact, resemble a lantern; they also look a lot like clouds.
"How do you know it's not just a regular cloud?" I ask him.
"Experience tells the difference," he says. It's an elliptical response, but this is an elliptical subject, in which meaning is as elusive as, well, clouds. I look up, wondering if the answer might be floating somewhere above me, but there is nothing in the Pasadena sky. Shou sees me and smiles, then admits he's taken to downloading cloud maps from the Internet, to get a more comprehensive view. Briefly, I think of Charlotte King and her global prediction system, and how much easier she'd have it if she could somehow do the same.
What makes Shou's theory resonant are these moments of intersection, especially the way it seems to dovetail with Berkland's notions about earthquakes and tides. If the two of them are even partly right, and at least some evidence suggests they could be, the whole thing has to do with water, and the degree to which its movement and levels indicate activity underground. Even Tom Heaton acknowledges that "some unusual phenomena associated with earthquakes -- the very sorts of phenomena that gave rise to the prediction in Haicheng -- may have to do with the movement of water in the Earth's crust," and Paul Silver's Calistoga research operates from a similar set of principles, albeit with a different point of view. The Calistoga geyser, actually, is a perfect example of the nebulous way science and intuition slow-dance together through the prediction landscape, since for more than a decade before Silver validated its precursor status, Berkland had tried to get someone to pay attention to its anomalies, without success. If this has anything to tell us, it's that the truth can often emerge from the least expected quarters.
Thinking about this, I start to wonder if maybe I could have missed something about Berkland's prediction, so after leaving Shou and his daughter, I stop at South Mudd to see what the computer yields. Today, December 16, it's recorded nine earthquakes in the region, the largest a 2.6 that hit five miles south-southwest ã of Ensenada, in Baja California, at 6:52 a.m. I scroll back a week, and then another few days, looking for a tremor to match Berkland's window, but despite a cluster in the mid-to-high 3's along the California-Nevada border, nothing really fits. Interestingly, the border quakes may or may not correlate with Shou's latest prediction, which calls for a 4.5 or larger in that area before December 18. Certainly, the timing and location are right, but the magnitude is way off, and the amount of activity out there in recent days casts things further into doubt. The difficulty with assessing earthquake forecasts, as Thurston Clarke points out in California Fault, is that "because California was so seismically active, any prediction relying on a 'seismic window' of several weeks hedged with a 'probability' of 70 to 80 percent was a reasonable gamble." Clarke was referring to Berkland when he wrote that, but the same could be said of most predictors; Shou's reports, says former USGS seismologist Jim Mori, are also "pretty large in terms of the area and times they cover," while Charlotte King links her symptoms to so many events that, no matter what happens, she is always there to stake a claim.
In some fundamental sense, Clarke and Mori are right, but there's another way in which, I think, they miss the point. Except for the true loonies, after all, even the most hardcore predictor will tell you that the idea of a fixed prediction -- like the one from Linda Curtis' files calling for an 8.6 along the New Madrid Fault near Blytheville, Arkansas, on June 4, 1993, at 7:59 a.m. -- is the stuff of science fiction, which means that windows, in some form or another, are about as accurate as we're likely to get. For me, the issue is more that I'm not sure whose windows are the right ones, or if any of them are the proper ones at all.