The Myth of Solid Ground
|Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter|
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT MYTHOLOGY, OR, more accurately, about the place where mythology and reality coincide. It's a story that begins and ends with an earthquake, a story that has everything to do with the way that, here in California, the ground is less than stable, and the earth we stand on can, without warning, turn as fluid as the sea. It's a story about how, in the face of all that motion, we evolve elaborate myths to give us balance, myths that help us get on with our lives. Some of these myths are talismanic, like our endless talk of Northridge, the way we can't let go of the long, drawn-out seconds of the shaking, as if in survival there is an element of protection, a spell cast against the fault zone rumbling again. Others are more practical, like the incantatory ritual of putting bottled water in our car trunks, or emergency money by the door. As with most stories, there are two sides to this one, which, for want of a better frame of reference, we may think of as science and faith. But for all their differences, both are after the same elusive something, which is to explain the shaking of the earth in terms of a mythology by which it may finally make a kind of sense.
At the heart of any mythology of earthquakes lies the issue of prediction, the idea that we may someday know in advance what the planet is going to do. It's like a seismological holy grail, as if, were we able to find it, we might somehow come to understand. Such a line of thinking, science tells us, is a losing proposition; the forces are too great, too incomprehensible, and besides, there is no proof. Yet if this is the case -- if the best we can hope for is to glimpse some larger pattern of probability -- then that's just not enough. It's one thing, after all, to know that the San Andreas Fault yields a major Southern California temblor every 140 years or so, the most recent being the 7.8 Fort Tejon quake in 1857, which means that we are nothing if not overdue. It's another, however, to suggest that this in any way fulfills us, that it can match the mix of exhilaration and dread we feel each time the earth kicks into motion, a sense of mystery that speaks to the very essence of our lives. If you go to the San Andreas, down in Redlands, say, where the fault runs alongside brand-new streets and housing developments, part of what you see is nothing, just a dry creek bed and vast empty distances, the only evidence of seismicity the soft contours of the mountains' alluvial fall. But if you stand there for a while, you notice the quality of the silence, the way that, besides the buzzing of an occasional insect, the quiet is as deep as the Earth itself. It's a majestic silence, a mythic silence, the silence of the San Andreas as it waits. This may be why, when it comes to earthquakes, science tends to fade into the fringes, where an odd assortment of researchers, psychics, witch doctors and apocalyptics make predictions to fill in the mythological gaps.
There is, of course, a peculiar commonality at work here, for geology, too, operates from a form of mythology, which mostly has to do with time. It's a field that deals in impossible increments, from the microseconds that mark the onset of an earthquake to the countless eons that constitute what geologists call "deep time." The Earth is four and a half billion years old, and not only that, it's in a perpetual flux of movement, of continental drift. What we experience as earthquakes are only the periodic spasms of this process; in another 15 million years, Los Angeles and San Francisco will come together, as the Pacific and North American plates continue to creep past each other at the rate of one and three-quarter inches a year. Given that time line, geology has no choice but to advance slowly, relying on evidence that's hard to come by and theories that shift, often drastically, as new information becomes clear. Just last month, a new fault discovered under ã downtown Los Angeles was determined to be responsible for the 1987 Whittier Narrows quake -- 12 years after the fact. "The Earth is a huge laboratory, and our experiments are few and far between," explains Tom Henyey, a professor in USC's Department of Earth Sciences and director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, a research consortium funded by the National Science Foundation and the United States Geological Survey. "Our experiments are the big earthquakes, and we have to wait for them. That's one of the reasons we move so slowly. We're operating on nature's time scale, and it's very different from the human one."
Because of this, geology is necessarily an intuitive discipline, in which science often merges with what, in Annals of the Former World, his geologic history of North America, John McPhee refers to as "geopoetry" -- as in "where gaps exist among the facts of geology the space between is often filled with things 'geopoetical.'" It's an idea that fascinates me, that seems, somehow, at the heart of the entire endeavor, regardless of which side you're on. Surely, geopoetry accounts for the current defining paradigm of plate tectonics; what else could it be besides a pure piece of poetry to imagine the Earth as a loose collection of floating land masses, a dreamscape of rock and magma that connects and splits apart and reconnects with stately elegance, both solid and fluid at once? The same could be said for deep time, whose incomprehensible, even terrifying distances are transformed by geopoetry, by the notion that, as one scientist notes in Annals of the Former World, "If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever." With that as a starting point, it may be the ultimate piece of geopoetry to imagine a system in which earthquakes can be predicted, in which there is a human logic to the geologic immensity, a way, in other words, to telescope time.
In some sense, I suppose, it all boils down to cosmology, to a world-view that can encompass a wide range of contradictions -- science vs. folklore, fact opposed to intuition, the dichotomy between geologic chronology and the span of a human life. For early primitive societies, the solution was to construct a mythology in which the Earth sat on the back of a giant animal whose movements made it shake, and in some ways, we're not so far removed from that. Earthquakes, after all, shatter what may be our most widely held illusion -- that of solid ground. They frighten us, they undermine our assumptions, they make us long for the security of knowing, if only for a moment, the elusive feeling of control. That's as true of the modern seismological community, with its calm and calculated logic, as it was of, say, William Money, an early Los Angeles eccentric who, according to Philip L. Fradkin's study of earthquake culture, Magnitude 8, "foretold in the third quarter of the 19th century the coming of comets, earthquakes, and the fiery destruction of San Francisco" -- a city Money hated so much he imagined it swept from the earth. And it's true also of the amorphous subculture of the earthquake predictors, who, in some sense, have stumbled upon a form of cultural plate tectonics, where the fault line traces the slow but steady slippage between the quest for knowledge and the age-old search for belief.
It's tempting to dismiss this as the kind of magical thinking we should have left behind long ago. Yet there's something compelling about the way it seeks to ascribe meaning to what geology alone might tell us are just the unexplained (and possibly unexplainable) movements of the earth. At its core resides the notion that earthquakes can be read, and that by these readings we might locate ourselves inside a system we can comprehend. It's this notion that is responsible for the amorphous concept of "earthquake weather"; for a long time, Southern California's earthquake weather was thought to be muggy, because that's how it was the day of the 1933 Long Beach temblor, but the mythology was revised to mean hot, dry Santa Ana winds in the wake of the 1971 Sylmar quake. Not long after I moved to Los Angeles, someone told me that three hours before a major earthquake, the birds would stop singing and, as at the San Andreas, there would be a profound stillness in the air. To this day, I think of that as a seismic barometer, a private source of reassurance. I don't know whether it works or not, since every temblor I've experienced has arrived at a moment of inattention, but I'm willing to suspend my disbelief. I look for signs. We all look for signs.
THE SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIELD OFFICE OF THE UNITED States Geological Survey is located in Pasadena, at the fringe of the Caltech campus, in a yellow two-story colonial with black shutters that would not have been out of place on the set of It's a Wonderful Life. It's an unimposing structure, a little worn around the edges, like a well-lived-in family home. On the front lawn, a subtle marker identifies the building, while inside there's a comfortable clutter, a feeling of work in process. Nowhere do you see any of the austere sterility popular culture associates with "science" -- no lab-coated technicians, no hushed technical language, no experiments dealing with problems no layperson can understand. Across the street, in Caltech's Seeley G. Mudd Building of Geophysics and Planetary Science (or South Mudd, as it's commonly known), the lobby houses an Earthquake Exhibit Center, with a drum-recorder seismograph and a computer console featuring a map of California that tracks every temblor in the region over magnitude 0.1, going back several weeks. Here, however, the only openly visible display is the collection of cartoons and tabloid clippings on the door of Linda Curtis' office, among them a Weekly World News front page bearing a "photograph" of the devil as he emerges from a long tear in a San Fernando Valley street in the aftermath of the Northridge quake.
Curtis is, in many ways, the USGS's gatekeeper, the information specialist who serves as frontline liaison ã with the community and the press. Her office sits just to the right of the building's entrance, and if you should happen to call the Survey, chances are it will be her low-key drawl you hear across the line. In her early 40s, dark-haired and good-humored, Curtis has been at the USGS for two decades, and in that time she's staked out her own odd little territory as a collector of earthquake predictions, which come across the transom at sporadic but steady intervals, like small seismic jolts themselves. "I've been collecting almost since day one," she says, explaining that it's useful for the USGS to keep records, if only to mollify the predictors, many of whom regard the scientific establishment with emotions ranging from frustration to outright paranoia. Yet there's a more personal reason, also, for her fascination -- that these reports are "interesting, creative, artistic. Everyone has their own ideas, and they're all distinct."
Paging through Curtis' archive is like taking an excursion into some uncharted interior wilderness. That sense is only heightened by the slightness of the material -- just a small sheaf of file folders containing letters and diagrams, arranged in what appears to be no particular order -- which gives the act of reading an almost voyeuristic intimacy, as if this were the detritus of some small, intense subculture defined by its own lack of definition, by the way these random notes and notions yield one to the next with all the logic of a dream. Ever since I first called Curtis to ask about it, I've been referring to her collection as the "crank file," and at first glance it's the cranks I notice, from the so-called Master of Disaster, who faxes in forecasts of "potential disaster" and signs his missives with "Have a nice day," to John J. Joyce, a 75-year-old retiree from Dallas, Pennsylvania, whose own theory, spelled out in dozens of compulsively scribbled, virtually incomprehensible letters, involves tracking something he calls "earthquake strains" -- although what those are, and how they work, remains lost in the tangled circuits of what he acknowledges is "a warped mind (mine)."
Yet the deeper I get into Curtis' files, the more I realize that the extreme crank element is the exception, that, for the most part, the forecasts here seek some rational connection between mythology and fact. This might seem like its own form of extremism, or at the very least contrivance. Still, the interesting thing about the predictors' material is how ingenuous, how innocent, it seems; whatever else they may be up to, these are people who believe. That's a tricky idea to negotiate, especially when you consider that most of these predictions have been proved wrong by hindsight, that there was, say, no "magnitude 7.0 or greater quake, with an epicenter near Rancho Cucamonga" before the end of 1995, as forecast by Edward G. Muzika on September 4 of that year. More to the point, though, is the way this opens up its own set of questions about the nature of belief and credibility, which come into stark relief each time I stumble across a document that does seem to have something to it, like one dated December 6, 1996, calling for a 6.0-7.0 along the west coast of Mexico within a month (a 6.8 hit just off the coast of Michoacan on January 11, 1997, only six days late), or the elaborate booklet, complete with maps and charts and color illustrations, prepared in August 1993 by an "aero-engineering design[er]" named Kenny Rogers, forecasting a giant Southern California earthquake sometime in January or February 1994.
Where predictions like these leave me is with a shock of possibility, an almost physical sensation that makes me wonder what I'm looking at, as if I can't quite see the connections even though I feel them all the same. It's here, however, that the split between science and superstition opens up like a deep ground fissure, a vast and insurmountable seismic divide. The USGS, after all, refuses to give such predictions any credence; even Curtis, who describes herself as having "a very open mind about the whole thing," says that although she believes some people may be sensing something, it's vague, "like a vibe or a vibration," and not really useful, while the seismologists, for their part, dismiss the predictors and their theories as a waste of time. Perhaps no one is as vehement on the subject as Lucile Jones, the Pasadena office's scientist-in-charge, who is best known for the late-night press conference after the 1992 Joshua Tree earthquake at which she spoke to reporters while holding her own tired and frightened child in her arms. More than anything, Jones believes, this image has made her a lightning rod for various earthquake obsessives, as if she were a benign, maternal figure who might listen to their seismic fantasies -- or, as she puts it, with something between a smile and a grimace, an "earthquake mom."
Jones may be right about that; most of the predictions in Linda Curtis' archive are addressed to her, and many assume a revealing tone of familiarity, referring to her as "Lucy" or "Dr. Lucy," as if they'd been written to a friend. Some go even further -- during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was the target of a bizarre series of letters, cards and hand-drawn maps, often inscribed in an eerie invented language, from a self-proclaimed prophet named Donald Dowdy who predicted all-out seismic apocalypse with himself as the trigger. The situation came to a head in March 1993, when Dowdy sent Jones a map of Los Angeles on which he'd written, "One of these days, I'm going to cut you into little pieces," a lyric from the Pink Floyd song "One of These Days." After the FBI was called in to investigate, Dowdy wrote Jones to explain that the lyric referred to "THE BIG ONE" and that he meant her no harm, but the memory still leaves a bitter taste. "I see prediction as having to do with severe psychological issues for a lot of people," Jones says, sitting at a conference table in her large, neat office on the second floor of the USGS. "On the one hand, it's about the need to take control, to exert control over an uncontrollable situation. But the truth is that we deal with hundreds of these people, and most of them get obsessed with their own theories and only want to be proven right. They don't want to have to measure their ideas against the same standards that I do, which contributes to a lot of misinformation about how earthquakes work."
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."
Of course, the question of confirmation is a tricky one. By what criteria do we measure the relationship between, say, a bout of vertigo and a seismic event hundreds, even thousands of miles away? Yet even by the most skeptical standards, King has come through with her share of predictions, including the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and the Whittier Narrows, Loma Prieta and Landers earthquakes; her call to the USGS on the Thursday before Northridge, in which she reported sensing something big in Southern California, is one of the few forecasts Linda Curtis says still lingers in her mind. King has also found what she considers to be direct correlations between her own sensitivity and those of animals, particularly whales, which, she believes, hear the same things she does and become confused, to the point of beaching themselves, "trying to escape the low-frequency sounds." There's a certain folk logic to such an argument, for animal sensitivity has long been a part of earthquake lore; in Haicheng, rats were photographed running down power lines while hundreds of snakes froze on the ground after coming out of hibernation prematurely, and history, not to mention Linda Curtis' file folders, is full of reports of cats and birds panicking and dogs running away in the days before a quake. "The whales," King says, "the whales were my teachers. I have a real affinity for the whales."
Listening to King, it's not hard to understand why, within the mainstream scientific community, she's regarded as a curiosity at best. At the same time, I can't help thinking that she may be on to something, if only a heightened sense of connection with the Earth. I have no trouble believing, for instance, that she may actually have some type of sensitivity, at least to low-end electromagnetic frequencies, and that this, in turn, could enable her to ã "hear" the subtle shifting of plates within the earth. Other predictors, after all, have made similar claims, and have the results to back them up. In 1989, a San Jose electronics salesman named Jack Coles forecast Loma Prieta with the help of a homemade radio rig that picked up what he believed were "long-wave, low-frequency radio waves produced by the grinding of tectonic plates preceding an earthquake"; he subsequently used the same system to call a 6.9 off the coast of Eureka in August 1991, as well as the Northridge quake, which, as Thurston Clarke reports in his book California Fault: Searching for the Spirit of a State Along the San Andreas, Coles warned the Associated Press about 24 hours before it happened. Kathy Gori, a Los Angeles sensitive, has in the last few years run off a string of 17 successful predictions -- with only three misses -- by relying on headaches that come and go a few hours prior to a quake. Although she's never been tested, Gori believes that her brain contains higher than average levels of magnetite, a mineral that may help homing pigeons and other animals orient themselves to the Earth's electromagnetic field; this allows her to function as a tectonic receiver, as it were. "I'm not a lunatic," she laughs. "I don't wear tinfoil underwear. It's a natural thing." This, it appears, might also explain King's peculiar talent, as if, in her case, being tuned in to earthquakes is really just an extra sense.
Still, the more King tells me, the more I notice how thin the membrane is between biology and a certain knife edge of obsession that keeps slicing through her words. This becomes apparent when she starts to catalog her ailments, the way each area of her body corresponds to a particular region of the world. With activity in Northern California, for instance, King experiences breathlessness, while severe stomach pain indicates West Yellowstone or the Sierras, and tilting of the body is always Washington state. For a more detailed accounting, $5 a month covers her daily e-mail update of symptoms and forecasts; at the bottom of each transmission is a list of that day's earthquakes, most of which are linked to a prediction, or some form of physical distress. As King goes on, I begin to see that what she's describing is less a prediction system than a personal iconography, a mythology of empowerment in which even the most random events may be interpreted through the fulcrum of the self. It makes sense when you consider her legally disabled status, the way her physical problems helped undermine an 18-year marriage and her relationships with three children she was too sick to care for most of the time. Yet it also plays into the hands of her detractors, giving them a pretext for dismissing everything about her out of hand. Sensitivity aside, there's something uncomfortably compulsive about her thoughts on the relationship between train accidents and earthquakes, or her belief that babies who die of crib death may, in fact, be infant sensitives.
Then, in a tone so matter-of-fact she might be talking about the weather, King declares, "One thing I've put together is that anywhere people go home and kill their families or there's a murder/suicide -- anything spur-of-the-moment or really violent -- you can always be sure that within one to four days will follow a quake in the Chile-Bolivia-Argentina border area."
"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.
I finish the drive in a weird state of heightened awareness, registering every bump in the road, every gust of wind. Even after I get home, the sensation lingers, and I walk from room to room making sure cabinets are closed, and moving anything that looks like it could fall on my sleeping children's heads. On some level, I know, this is ridiculous, a classic case of the power of suggestion overwhelming the power of rational thought. Yet the edge I'm feeling grows more acute when I check my e-mail and find the latest update from Charlotte King, which describes "Heart pain . . . on and off the last few hours," a precursor (or so she says) to activity in Yucca Valley, Landers or Big Bear. "Whatever is happening that I am picking up," King writes, "will be happening in less than 12-72 hours . . . more likely 12-24 hours. We are looking at a moderate size event 4.0-4.6+." The message seems to confirm Berkland's prediction, which, in turn, only solidifies my own aura of belief. It doesn't matter whether all this is the ã product of magical thinking; it doesn't even matter whether it's true or not, just that it might be, that there might be some possibility of control. Such a state brings with it a certain clarity, and in that moment I begin to see how it might feel to be a predictor myself. The whole thing reminds me of Linda Curtis' story about calling her own small earthquake: "One morning," she told me, "I said to myself, 'Next Tuesday, there'll be a 3.5 in Riverside' -- and there was. I was so ecstatic, but I knew it was just random luck." Curtis, no doubt, is right about that, although what she calls luck I might prefer to call faith. Even so, I wonder, when does luck start to inform scientific practice? How far can you take this? How deep does it go?
EIGHT DAYS LATER, I'M STILL ASKING myself the same questions, considering the extent to which prediction is a state of mind. Berkland's Los Angeles window has passed without incident, leaving me to contemplate his methods, to ponder the point at which logic yields to desire. Is it enough that he called the Berkeley quake, or is there less to this than meets the eye? I keep thinking about that as I drive past the USGS office and park near Caltech, where I'm to meet Zhonghao Shou, a 60-year-old Chinese former chemist who, for the last nine years, has predicted earthquakes by studying the clouds.
After locking the car, I walk the half block back to campus. Along the way, I notice someone watching me from the driver's seat of a red convertible. At first, I don't think much about it, but then I notice that it's Linda Curtis, the top half of her face obscured by black sunglasses, the lower half split into a grin.
"Hey," she says. "I was going to call you. There's something I wanted to tell you, but now I forget what it is." She takes in my notebook and legal pad, sees the tape recorder in my pocket. "You here to interview somebody?"
"Yeah," I say. "Zhonghao Shou."
"Oh," she laughs. "I think it was about him. He's been hanging around."
I smile at the coincidence, but Curtis has nothing else to tell me, and after a moment she continues on her way. Still, as I walk to the intersection where Shou waits with his daughter Wenying, a Caltech Ph.D. candidate in biology who acts as his combination translator-advocate, I'm struck again by the circularity of earthquake prediction, the way I keep stumbling across all these odd associations. Berkland's unfulfilled prediction aside, it's hard not to feel the pull of synchronicity, as if it were its own gravitational field. More than anything, I think, this explains the draw of the predictors, the way that even in the absence of concrete evidence, there is at least the sense that they have tapped into a subterranean psychic plane, a set of not-quite-rational connections that appear more real each time another one comes up.
On the surface, Zhonghao Shou seems like nothing if not a part of that, a man known around the USGS field office as "Cloud Man." Yet in person, there's something sober about him, something distinguished; neat, subdued and highly rational, he's the very opposite of what you'd expect. Dressed in a sweater vest, rugby shirt, black loafers and pressed blue jeans, he has come prepared to make a case for cloud prediction, bringing a sheaf of documents, graphs, diagrams -- even statistical analyses that interpret his forecasts in terms of probabilities -- all neatly typed or written out in a calligrapher's hand. As we walk across the campus, I'm struck by the fact that with his thinning hair and long, sleepy face, he could pass for a professor, and when, through his daughter, he begins to discuss his theories, the impression only grows. Shou's charts and explanations, after all, are framed in his own hybrid form of scientific jargon, which may or may not lend them an air of credibility, but provides a vivid insight into how he sees himself, as a researcher, not some odd fringe enthusiast, seeking purchase on a territory of which Caltech is the absolute epicenter. This, of course, is both the burden and the calling of every dedicated earthquake predictor.
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.
THE WHOLE OF EARTHQUAKE PREDICTION grows less distinct the more I try to hold it in my mind. It's a constant back-and-forth between predictors like Shou and Berkland, with all their "common sense" intuitions, and the seismologists who insist that there's more to the subject, that what appears logical on the surface often fails to hold up. When I call the USGS to ask about Shou's theory, for instance, Lucy Jones tells me the very idea is fallacious. "Earthquakes," she declares, "happen 10 kilometers below the surface. You can't create a cloud down there." Jim Mori agrees, although he's somewhat gentler, noting that, as with Haicheng, there have been reports of ground vapors associated with earthquakes. Still, he suggests, "If it were so obvious, it should be obvious. A lot of temperature changes would have to take place at ground level to make large clouds, and we haven't seen them. There's quite a bit of monitoring going on, and it's hard to believe we're missing all that stuff." Berkland, for his part, evokes a stronger reaction, as typified by Tom Heaton, who says in a voice thick with annoyance, "Jim Berkland has made many claims about his ability to predict earthquakes. He's made these claims for 25 years, and we've had lots of earthquakes. If the relationship between tides and earthquakes was that straightforward, it would be hard to suppress." Of all the scientists to whom I mention Berkland, only the Carnegie Institution's Paul Silver responds with anything less than exasperation. "His hypothesis is not outrageous," he admits, "in the sense that tides do deform the Earth," but he goes on to dismiss the theory anyway, citing the recent findings presented at the American Geophysical Union as proof.
Silver's take on this particularly interests me, since he's the one mainstream seismologist I've talked to who seems to share anything of the predictor's point of view. When I press him on the issue of water levels and displacement, however, he calls it inconclusive, telling me that "what we have to do now is enter the phase of really measuring deformation" -- the way the USGS sought to do in its investigations of Parkfield or the Palmdale Bulge. The problem, Silver says, is that even if you accept phenomena like water anomalies or animal behavior as valid, they are indirect indicators, and, as such, only measurable in scattershot fashion, which doesn't let us "understand the role precursors play as an earthquake develops, or to correlate them with other precursors to get a sense of seismic strain." More useful would be a system of measuring strain directly, which, he believes, has become increasingly viable with the advent of high-tech tools like sensitive seismometers to mark small, previously untraceable earthquakes, or global-positioning systems, which literally allow geologists to see deformation over a wide area by recording subtle variations in distance between sensors on the ground. The idea of bypassing secondary evidence to go right to the source is a compelling one, and it begins to suggest a context in which earthquakes might be credibly predicted after all. But as Silver talks, I find myself drifting once more amid all the old polarities, finding in his argument elements of both Berkland's notions of tides and ã deformation, and the more pragmatic efforts of the USGS and Southern California Earthquake Center scientists, who have lately begun to adapt similar technological innovations to their own, nonpredictive ends.
Ultimately, that feeling of suspension, of Ping-Ponging back and forth between the possibility of prediction and its opposite, may be the only thing we can count on. It emerges in even the most basic seismological discussions, such as the current debate over how earthquakes begin and end, whether large and small earthquakes are qualitatively different or are, instead, related in rather intimate ways. "One thought people have," explains USC's Tom Henyey, "is that little earthquakes grow into big earthquakes," that as a fault starts to slip, it builds up momentum, which either abates if the fault "catches itself" or ends up accelerating into a sizable quake. "The more we study with good recordings and good data," he elaborates, "the more we're beginning to believe that this is how most earthquakes operate" -- which suggests that, even if we could reasonably determine when an earthquake might be coming, its magnitude would be anybody's guess. Because of these uncertainties, Lucy Jones believes that we'd be better off focusing on developing a sustainable society, instead of the crisis-management culture we currently have. "What we need," Jones says, "is a way to live with earthquakes. We need to build buildings that won't fall down. We need to be able to deploy the necessary resources, even after an earthquake takes place. Whether or not we can predict them, earthquakes are going to come. This is something you live with by preparing, and we need to be prepared."
Without question, Jones is right about the importance of preparation. Even Berkland and King stress the need for precautions, and many predictors lament the hopelessness of making forecasts they know will go unheeded. "I know something's going to happen," King says in an unguarded moment, "and nobody will listen. People will die, and there's nothing I can do." Yet whether you see prediction as just another pipe dream, or you're like the out-of-town screenwriter I've heard about who checks in with a predictor friend whenever he's planning to visit California, preparation can come in a variety of forms. There's physical preparation, and there's its psychological counterpart, and while I wouldn't sacrifice the former for the latter, I also wouldn't say the latter doesn't count. In some ways, it all comes back to geopoetry, for if an earthquake, any earthquake, has something to teach us, it's that both our best and worst endeavors often pale to insignificance in the face of the processes of the planet, the inevitable stress and shear of the Earth as it slowly reinvents itself. This is what McPhee's geologist meant when he talked about the liberating aspects of deep time, and in spite of all the inconsistencies, the logic flaws and false alarms, I can't help thinking that it's what the predictors provide us also, a form of psychic strategy, as if by allowing us for a moment a way to mitigate our uncertainty, they have given us an emotional barrier against the impermanence of life along the fault.
Four and a half years ago, when my wife, Rae, was pregnant with our first child, I got a firsthand taste of such a strategy, after Rae developed her own uncanny talent for prediction, accurately calling three earthquakes in a couple of months. The way she describes it, she would actually feel the shaking, as if a tremor had just rolled through the ground beneath her, and within a few hours, the sensation would be followed by an actual event. The first time it happened, I shrugged it off as coincidence, but by the third, I had grown to trust her instincts, and I waited out the interval between premonition and payoff in an exquisite tension of anticipation. To a certain extent, it was as if my entire life had been cast into suspension, a situation complicated by the fact that Rae would never get a sense of magnitude, big or small. But what I remember most is that strange edge of connection, as if, in knowing that an earthquake was coming, I had been given a place within something greater than myself, as if I were not merely subject to the planet and its vagaries, but a part of it, after all.
This, it seems to me, is where the issue of prediction leaves us, not with certainty, necessarily, or understanding, but with a feeling of enlargement, of belonging to the world. In that regard, the degree to which it makes for sound (or unsound) science may be entirely beside the point. There's a way, after all, in which science fails to apprehend the bigger picture, focusing more on fact than on meaning. That's a contradictory notion, but then so is the idea of inhabiting a seismic zone, where the simplest bits of business -- driving beneath a freeway overpass, putting your children to bed -- become extraordinary acts of faith. In such a landscape, the only thing we know for sure is that the earth is moving, which makes us long to feel stability even more. We put our roots down wherever we can secure them. We look for solid ground.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.
- Kabbalah Centre and Its Former Rabbi to the Stars to Pay $177,500 in Sexual Battery Suit
Sun., Nov. 29, 6:30pm
Mon., Nov. 30, 7:00pm
Mon., Nov. 30, 7:30pm
Tue., Dec. 1, 7:30pm
- Bicycle Is Returned to Child, but Alleged Bully Bike Thief Is Still On the Loose
- Thanksgiving Travelers Will Enjoy Lowest Gas Prices Since Early 2009