Ready for the Big One

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The headline in the Gilroy Dispatch on Oct. 13, 1989, was alarming enough: “Is World Series Quake Coming?”

Amazingly, it was. The magnitude-6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake struck four days later, killing 63 people, causing billions of dollars in damage and interrupting Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park.

It also made a name for Jim Berkland, a county geologist who had given the newspaper that incredible prediction. Berkland, an employee for Santa Clara County who grew up in Glen Ellen, claimed to have developed new methods for doing what many scientists say is impossible: predicting earthquakes before they strike.

These days, the 83-year-old Berkland is back in Glen Ellen, living on the family property where he grew up. There he tends the grounds, cares for his wife, Jan, watches the birds from his front porch and continues his prognostications, issuing a monthly newsletter in which he scores his own previous predictions while making new ones.

“I’m certainly expecting at least a 3.5 to a 5.5,” he said earlier this week, referring to the magnitude of quake he predicts will occur sometime soon within 140 miles of Mount Diablo. The exact time frame – or “seismic window,” to use a phrase he coined years ago – for Berkland’s current prediction is between Jan. 29 and Feb. 5, and is based on “extreme tidal forces.”

Lunar phases are at the heart of Berkland’s predictions, and he believes the moon’s gravitational tug is key to understanding when and where a quake will strike. The theory led him to predict Loma Prieta, and it has guided the hundreds of other predictions he has made over the years (for which he claims to have a 75 percent accuracy rate).

Before that realization, “I believed what everybody else believed, that earthquakes were random events,” Berkland said. But in 1974, the geologist noticed a connection between tides and a series of quakes occurring in the region.

“All of them came just after the newer full moon in the time of perigee, and the tides were high,” he explained. Could the moon’s gravitational forces be putting a strain on tectonic plates, leading to earthquakes?

He decided to test his theory by predicting when the next quake would hit, and, “Two days later we got a 4.4 quake down by Gilroy.”

Encouraged, Berkland began predicting quakes as a kind of hobby, and in 1979 he hit upon a second possible insight, thanks to a nudge from a fellow scientist.

That year, in early August, “We had the strongest quake in Santa Clara County since 1911,” he said. Berkland had predicted the Coyote Lake quake (centered near Gilroy), and soon after, a physicist from Xerox called him up at home with an observation.

“He had been watching the lost-and-found column in the Mercury News and noticed there was this huge number of missing cats” at the time around the quake, Berkland recalled. Indeed, “Our cat Rocky had disappeared six days before that quake.”

Berkland, who is highly attuned to animals – he watches the wildlife around Glen Ellen closely, speaks frequently of former pets, and even once had a bobcat named Cee-cee – thought about this, and decided it was possible that cats, dogs and other animals respond to localized changes in the Earth’s magnetic field prior to earthquakes.

“I became a believer that animals were detecting something my black boxes couldn’t,” he said, and from that moment Berkland added a new dataset: classified ads for lost pets from the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News.

The animal factor caught his attention prior to the Loma Prieta quake. Besides particularly high tides, and a “record number of missing pets” in the Mercury News, Berkland noted that “two very rare whales, baby whales, washed up at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. … It hasn’t happened before or since.” Those were beaked whales, and “an equally rare pygmy sperm whale washed up at Santa Cruz” around that time as well.

Meanwhile, Berkland said, “The geyser began to act up over here around Calistoga,” with odd temperature changes. These and other clues caused him to predict a major quake in the near future – just in time for the World Series.

Though he has experienced dozens of them, “The only quake that ever scared me was the World Series quake, and I thought the county building was coming down around my ears,” Berkland said. “The P-waves were just – boom! – up and down. … My whole office was a total shambles.”

Afterward, when Berkland’s prediction became known, he expected congratulations from his colleagues. Instead, “USGS took great umbrage that a geologist was doing what they weren’t doing. So they prevailed upon a county executive to look into what I was doing and I was suspended for two-and-a-half months.”

Eventually they let him return, so long as he promised to not predict any more earthquakes “on county time.” That’s around the time his monthly newsletter, “Syzygy” – a term for the alignment of the sun, moon and Earth, as happens during every full or new moon – was born.

Berkland continues to produce the newsletter to this day, and makes sure to send a copy every month to the USGS.

He also lives happily in his boyhood home, surrounded by his own past and recalling the Depression-era Glen Ellen of his childhood, when he attended Dunbar School and roamed barefoot during the summer months, catching crawdads in Sonoma Creek.

But Berkland also focuses on the future, and remains alert to new possibilities for predicting quakes or other natural phenomena. He keeps a tidal calendar with him, jotting notes, wondering aloud whether people might be detecting a coming quake when they experience headaches or a ringing in the ears.

“You wonder how much science can explain, and you have to just keep yourself open to the possibilities,” he said.

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