Earthquake prognosticator, Glen Ellen raconteur Jim Berkland dies at 85
"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."
Berkland was largely unmoved by the controversies, maintaining that the topic of predicting earthquakes was "too important to be left to the experts."
In Glen Ellen, however, his fame had nothing to do with his prognostications. His friend and colleague in the Glen Ellen Historical Society described him as "a man who's been living life well, right here in the Valley of the Moon, for many, many years – out loud and with great style."
"He was such an eloquent, talkative guy and had so much to say," said Crawford. "He could regale you with the history of Glen Ellen, his own history, all about his unique style of earthquake prediction which was not always loved by the true-blue geologists."
In the 20 years since he returned to the Valley of the Moon, he became active in the volunteer fire department, the Lions Club, the Jack London Foundation, and the Glen Ellen Historical Society. He was also a docent at Bouverie Preserve, where his enthusiasm and broad knowledge of natural history made him a popular figure.
Earlier this year, Shere wrote a tribute to Berkland in his Kenwood Press column. "His eager curiosity, combined with a generous and agile mind, led to discoveries that redefined the geologic prehistory of our region," he wrote. Berkland took note of fossil shellfish high in the Mayacamas range, Ponderosa pines (usually endemic to the Sierra) in Nunn's Canyon near Beltane Ranch, and fused tektites from a meteorite at Morton's Warm Springs.
"He happily struck up conversations with strangers," said his son Jay, who lives in Los Angeles. "He readily shared laughter or gentle tears when he told stories about his experiences of life and the world that so fascinated him."
In recent years he had become more involved with the Glen Ellen Community Church, where he was baptized a few years ago, according to Pastor Jim Hill. "Of late, we could see Jim's faith in his Savior, Jesus Christ come alive as he studied the Scriptures in our weekly Bible studies. We will miss Jim greatly as he was always a joy to be around."
He is also survived by a daughter, Krista, and her family, who live in Maryland, and his wife Jan. They are planning a private family observance this fall.
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