“It’s really very simple to predict earthquakes, and anyone could do it,” Jim Berkland liked to say. “The hard part is being right.”
Berkland, a retired geologist and avid writer who grew up and lived much of his later life in Glen Ellen, died last Friday after a lifetime of predicting quakes and making headlines. He was a few days shy of his 86th birthday.
He was a widely-recognized figure in Glen Ellen, where he attended Dunbar School when he was a child and used to catch crawdads in Sonoma Creek, and to where he returned when he retired in 1997. He once described himself as “a country boy who grew up in the Valley of the Moon, in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.” He was recently named Honorary Poet Laureate of the Valley of the Moon by the Glen Ellen Historical Society.
“Raconteur and sage, he generously shares his extensive scientific knowledge along with his poetry with anyone who asks,” wrote Index-Tribune columnist Sylvia Crawford recently, before his passing.
“He wrote a poem for any and every occasion,” remembered Crawford this week. “It was always sweetly sentimental, it was always from his heart.” (See video on this page.)
He was the gregarious Grand Marshall of the 2009 Glen Ellen Village Fair parade, and carried a walking cane carved and painted to look like a snake, which he said he got in Egypt. Moses comparisons were inevitable.
“His personality was extravagant, and generous,” said Jim Shere of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. “That’s the way he lived.”
Berkland came to national fame in 1989, when on Oct. 17 – four days after he publicly predicted what he called a “World Series Earthquake” in the pages of the Gilroy Dispatch – a magnitude 6.9 quake struck the Peninsula, disrupting the third game of the World Series at Candlestick Park between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s. Though it came to be known in geological circles as the Loma Prieta earthquake, its popular name remains to this day the one he gave it, the World Series Quake.
In fact while he claimed an accuracy of 70-75%, his methodology and results were regarded with skepticism in the professional community, which generally looks askance at prediction anyway. He earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of California at Berkeley in 1958, and worked with the US Geological Survey after college. Following graduate work at San Jose State, he worked with the Bureau of Reclamation in Alaska.
He was working as a geologist with Santa Clara County at the time of the Loma Prieta Quake, and claimed they put him on leave for at least six weeks after his 1989 “prediction” gained widespread publicity, asking him not to make any more predictions out of fear of “mass panic.”
His predictive methods – which drew not only on tidal cycles but spikes in missing pets culled from newspaper want ads and irregularities in geyser eruptions – were idiosyncratic, but well-documented in his personally published newsletter “Syzygy.”
Critics said his predictive window was broad enough to net most earthquakes anyway, regardless of the effects of “syzygy” (a lineal alignment of three celestial bodies). Charles Richter, the CalTech geologist who created of the magnitude scale that bears his name, drolly noted “Every earthquake takes place within 3 months of an equinox.”
‘The Hard Part is Being Right’
After the highly-publicized “World Series Earthquake,” a series of misfires in his predictive method dogged Jim Berkland in the years following.
He predicted on Fox News in March 2011 a massive earthquake in California would fall on March 26 of that year, basing his forecast as he often did on tidal cycles and the influence of a full moon. There was a full moon on March 26; there was no earthquake.
He predicted a “mega earthquake” in Southern California during the week of April 21, 2016, another forecast that missed the mark.
Sometimes he was close – his January 2014 prediction of an earthquake in the Bay Area of between 3.5 and 5.5 within 140 miles of Mount Diablo, between Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, missed the mark. But seven months later, the South Napa Quake of Aug. 24 measured 6.0 on the “moment magnitude” scale, and was widely felt throughout the North Bay, including in the Sonoma Valley.