SF Chronicle Forecasts Doom, Earth Delivers Early

Every reporter fears the possibility that unforeseen events will somehow render their work obsolete. Sometimes, however, events can also render the work portentous.

As his or her story goes to press, every reporter fears the possibility that unforeseen events will jump out of the blue and somehow render the work inaccurate or obsolete. Sometimes, however, and this weekend provided a good example, events can also render the work strange, or even portentous.

“Paradise Rocked,” read the San Francisco Chronicle’s Monday headline, referring to the magnitude-6.6 earthquake that shook the Big Island on Sunday. Houses collapsed, electricity cut out, sinkholes opened and travel rerouted. Fortunately, there were apparently no deaths, only minor injuries and no tsunami. But as islanders shake off the dust and sweep up their broken china, those who read a different Chronicle headline, from a day before the quake, might be feeling a little jinxed.

On Saturday, as the earth stood still, the news was: “Kiss that Hawaiian Timeshare Goodbye; Islands will Sink in 80 Million Years.” In the front-page feature, author David Perlman tells the tale of the islands’ slow, but fateful ride on the Pacific plate, which will eventually carry them to Alaska’s Aleutian trench. There, they will be “swallowed into the Earth’s heaving crust” by subduction, a tectonic process whereby one of the planet’s crustal plates slides under another.

Geologists attribute Sunday’s tremblor, Hawaii’s largest in over 20 years, to similar tectonic movements, rather than volcanic activity, which created (and continues to create) the islands as the Pacific plate glides across a rising “hot spot” of magma emanating from below the crust. The impetus for Perlmans’ now foreboding article was a September report in the journal Science, asserting the “hot spot,” once assumed to be static, actually moves.

Although his story is more general in scope, Perlman hits on a subject that continually spawns fascinating research around the globe: scientists know very little about the earth-forming/destroying processes that take place beneath the surface. What drives plate tectonics and continental drift is still largely a mystery. But as events unfolded, that point vanished more quickly than the Hawaiian Islands ever will. With hindsight, the appearance of Perlman’s article on the Chronicle’s front page, a mere 24 hours (if that) before Sunday’s earthquake seems, more than anything, eerie.

Perlman’s first, ominous sentence read, “Slowly, slowly, the Big Island of Hawaii is sinking toward its doom.” And then quickly, quickly, the earth began to shake as though the wait was already over, and the apocalypse had come too soon. Thankfully, the tremor and its aftershocks caused relatively little damage, much less that the actual end of the world would presumably inspire. But perhaps islanders shouldn’t get too comfy either - regardless of how many natural disasters they endure, Hawaiians have only got another 80 million some odd years before they will definitely have to find a new beach.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.