March 2011 Archives

Predicting Earthquakes - Warning Bells - Debunking The Wayward Animal Theory

My first ideas about tsunamis came from reading illustrated books as a child. When I was in Thailand and India during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I was exposed to more detail, and athis month, Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami surpassed anything I knew or could envision. Media provided what fiction and after-the-fact reporting had for centuries left largely to our imaginations and movies. The footage gave a surrealistic feel of destruction, people running, towns washed away, waves tossing huge boats like toys flung by an errant child in a bathtub.

Japan's disaster was more serious then what I could have imagined, our nuclear world exacerbates natural disasters. When Buck wrote in 1948, people were just waking up to both the potential of nuclear power and its destructive power. Today, the impact of the earthquake and tsunami continues to be phenomenally challenging for Japan. Even from afar, the earthquake/tsunami unnerved everyone living on a known or yet-to-be-known subduction zone.

If real events weren't unsettling enough, we contend with rumors spread by the media. Newsweek recently published an article predicting the next earthquake, titled "The Scariest Earthquake is Yet to Come".

The article described the Pacific Rim's "Ring of Fire" as "a giant bell", with earthquakes occurring sequentially around the reverberating bell. First Chile, then Japan, next the West Coast, they wrote. Unfortunately Newsweek dabbles in unscientific fear-mongering, as we've previously noted, and scientists roundly criticized the article and its bell analogy. But that didn't stop people from believing the "trusted news source".

Watching the Animals

Neil Cavuto of Fox News contributed to the fear by interviewing Jim Berkland, a former Santa Clara County, California employee. Berkland achieved notoriety in 1989 after he told The Gilroy Dispatch ("serving the greater Gilroy, CA area"), that the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 was imminent. Berkland "predicted" the earthquake by noting full moons and high tides, and by cataloging newspaper accounts of lost cats and dogs. As he told one reporter,

"'If you clip out the lost pet columns and splice them together then you will get an excellent bar graph' that shows a build-up to a peak just before an earthquake". (Nov. 30, 1990, The Orange County Register)

Fox's Cavuto described the bell phenomena from Newsweek, and

"what scientists are increasingly calling the so-called ring of fire that is encircling the entire Pacific Ocean"
. ("Ring of Fire" isn't new, my ancient Rand McNally atlas maps show the Pacific "Ring of Fire" subduction zones.) Berkland told Fox:

"Just before the World Series quake there was very unusual beaching of rare whales in the Ocean Beach, in San Francisco. Just after that, a equally rare pygmy sperm whale washed up at Santa Cruz, within about five miles of the epicenter of the World Series quake. That kind of beaching had never occurred before nor since. So we're looking for strange fish coming into from deep water to the shallow water, wild animals coming into cities."

Over the years, Berkland's criteria for predicting earthquakes has included full moons, high tides, lost homing pigeons, people with headaches, as well as "strange fish and wild animal" sightings. Let's look just at his claims of strange fish and wild animals losing their bearing. If you think about it for one second you'll realize this is not rare. As the world's human population expands, wildlife will inevitably cross our paths, more often as we increasingly disturb them. In a series covering a Supreme Court case on sonar testing, Acronym Required documented increasing numbers of whale beachings and strandings suspected to be caused by military sonar. In "Whales in a Time of War", we wrote in 2007, "mid-frequency sonar testing caused whale strandings and deaths in North Carolina (2005); at Haro Strait off the coast of Washington State (2003); in the Canary Islands (2004, 2002, 1989, 1986, 1985); Madeira (2000); the U.S. Virgin Islands (1999, 1998); Greece (1996), and the Bahamas (2000)."

This is just documents whales suspected to be stranded because of sonar, not dolphin strandings of, or giant squid washed ashore, or devil crabs, or bird and bee die-offs, or wayward sea lions, or starving polar bears. If you could actually track the real number of lost, washed up and otherwise misplaced domesticated animals, marine mammals, wildcats, birds, bugs, fish, etc., Berkland's theory would drown in the reality of irrelevant data.

Although Berkland said that the rare pygmy sperm whale beaching prior to the Loma Prieta earthquake is unprecedented, scientists say the opposite. Pygmy sperm whales are about dolphin sized, and there have been hundreds of pygmy sperm whale strandings. The animals strand for various reasons, old age, illness, predators, toxins/toxicants, from following porpoises, or pods sticking with a sick member. They're also deep diving mammals like the dolphins we described in Whales In The Supreme Court, which scientists suspect are more sensitive to sonar.

Recently, a calf and its mother pygmy sperm whale were stranded and died on a beach in Florida. George Beidenbach, director of conservation programs for the Georgia Aquarium's Dolphin Conservation Field Station at Marineland, noted that pygmy sperm whale strandings are the second-most frequent among whales and dolphins, second only to bottlenose dolphins. According to Beidenbach, volunteers come upon whale or dolphin strandings about once a month just on that particular beach. Two different pygmy sperm whales stranded on nearby beaches within a couple of weeks of that mother/pup stranding.

In my very cursory perusal, just for California, there were at least one or two documented strandings of pygmy sperm whales in 1981, 1989, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2003, 2008. This only includes incidences where the strandings were 1) observed 2) reported in a newspaper 3) happened to be seen by me in my brief search. The titles of these newspaper stories inevitably call such strandings "rare". But what are they going to title their news, the editors? "Extremely common and utterly boring pygmy sperm whale stranding?" Unsurprisingly, pygmy sperm whales also wash up in places that don't experience earthquakes -- Texas, France, UK...

Berkland notes natural phenomena to predict earthquakes within a broad window of time for a sometimes expansive geographical area. In December 1999, for instance, he predicted an earthquake between the 23rd and 29th of the month, as one reporter wrote: "with an 85 percent chance of a 3.5-to-6 shaker within 140 miles of San Jose, and an 85 percent chance of a 7-plus somewhere in the world, probably in the Pacific Rim". (Ostler, S. "Cheesy Thoughts on the Moon" Dec. 23 San Francisco Chronicle) As you can imagine, such a non-specific "prediction" heightens the odds of being right. But it still barely increases Berkland's success rate, which incidentally, he claims is much higher than what unbiased observers note.

Predicting Earthquakes, Genius or Beautiful Mind?

For his recent prediction for an earthquake last week on the West Coast -- it didn't happen -- Berkland told Cavuto about a "massive fish kill in Redondo Beach [sardines], a massive fish sweep in in a Mexico [I guess in addition to the drug sweeps], and a bunch of whales come in close to San Diego". If animals swimming within sight in any way predicted earthquakes and tsunamis, not only would whale-watching tourist excursions go out of business but we'd all be up to our ears in earthquake debris or washed out to sea. Nevertheless, plenty of people give in to the fear that Berkland might somehow be right.

But ironically, perhaps focusing on imaginary impending doom distracts people from doing the actual work of preparing for disaster. Do the twitter fears manufactured by Berkland's full-moon/lost dogs accounts, make people forget that California cities won't publish the locations of soft-story buildings. Cities are not releasing the data because property owners don't want property values to decrease. Property values are more important that lives lost to collapsed buildings? Twitter that.

Berkland himself used to evaluate building safety for Santa Clara county. Upon his retirement in 1994, one reporter noted that Berkland was respected in the county for assuring building safety and even going head to head with developers. But somewhere along the line, Berkland went from doing the day to day regulatory enforcement work -- helpful, tedious and probably contentious, to the more illustrious role talking to Fox-News TV. "He's a lively and agreeable man with a head full of facts, figures and memories he is eager to share", the same reporter wrote, continuing:

"Interviewing Berkland is like shooting the rapids in a canoe steered only with a Popsicle stick. The current sweeps you willy-nilly from one thought to the next: the baby bobcat he raised as a pet. The fossil shrew he discovered in 1963, later named Adeloblarina berklandi in his honor. The horned toads he caught as he grew up in Glendale..." (Chui, Glennda, San Jose Mercury News April 29, 1994)

The San Francisco Chronicle reported two decades ago that Berkland's wife called him "a walking encyclopedia, with the kind of memory that absorbs incredible amounts of numbers but allows him to forget what it was he went to the store for." (Minton, Torri Jan. 30, 1990 "An Unshakeable Quake Predictor Unfazed by Scorn"). These traits don't necessarily designate an Einstein in our midst, but perhaps help business. Berkland conducts interviews, and runs a for-charge earthquake prognostication call-in line, a website and newsletter.

Earthquake prediction is the type of gig that attracts a certain notoriety and appreciation, as does palm reading. Berkland's not the only one who claims to predict earthquakes, and in this tough economy it's quite nice to see that some such fervent prognosticators find paying audiences.

Unfortunately though, some media outlets are all too willing to make a main attraction out of a sideshow. Fear-mongering distracts attention from politicians spurred by vested interests to clamor that even less money be spent helping protect people from the real catastrophes. In natural disasters, buildings collapse and tsunamis wash out beachfront properties. Nuclear and chemical accidents occur along earthquake prone subduction zones. Inevitably, as has happened with Japan's TEPCO, responsible parties ignore safety measures. But until that catastrophe, people entertain themselves with the imaginary warning bells on a map instead of, for instance, ensuring functional warning bells in earthquake prone towns.

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