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Yearly Archives: 2020 − News & Stories


Monthly temperature in March below average

The weather statistics from Longyearbyen have, for years on end, yielded temperatures above the long-term average. This has been the case for 111 months, a series that started in November 2010: since then and until February 2020, there has not been a single month with an average temperature below the long-term statistics.

But March 2020 turned out to be the month that finally breaks up this series of more than 9 years. It is very unlikely to be a new trend, just a cold month between many warmer ones, but still – the monthly average of March 2020 was -16.2°C or half a degree below the long-term average, according to Ketil Isaksen from the Norwegian meteorological institute.

Ice, Adventfjord

A cold March: fresh ice forming in Adventfjord near Longyearbyen.

Half a degree below average is not exactly an awful lot, but nevertheless Isaksen assumes that the cold winter gives the warming permafrost a little break: because of the thin snow cover, the cold should have penetrated the ground, an effect that should last a while into the summer.

The reference period for the long-term average is 1960-1990. As soon as the current year is over, there will be a new reference period: 1990-2020. This will increase the reference average temperature values because these recent decades have been significantly warmer than the previous ones. Hence, as the new reference value will then be higher, we will, in the future, see more months again with average temperatures below the long-term average: a result of the new statistical base rather then the end of climate change with will keep making the Arctic warmer. This is, based on all current knowledge, not going to change any time soon. The meteorological record from Longyearbyen airport (Svalbard Lufthavn) shows that the temperature has risen by no less than 5.6 degrees since 1961!

Ice chart, Svalbard

Ice chart as of 01st April 2020. No April Fool’s Day joke, but quite a lot of ice.
© Norwegian meteorological Institute.

Currently, we can at least enjoy the fact that there is a good ice cover in and near Spitsbergen, both fast ice in coastal waters and drift ice, currently reaching as far south as Bear Island (Bjørnøya)!

Polar bear died from circulatory collapse

The female polar bear that was anaesthetised near Longyearbyen in late January and that died during helicopter transport is found to have died from circulatory collapse as a consequence of a combination of stress, shock and medication, according to the Sysselmannen.

Sysselmannen (police) and Norwegian Polar Institute experts had started to scare the polar bear away from Vestpynten near Longyearbyen by helicopter in the late afternoon of 30 January. The bear was moved across Adventfjord and – partly by using snow mobiles – into a side valley, where she was finally anaesthetised. A total of 2.5 hours passed from the beginning of the operation until she was put to sleep: a long time for an animal that is not made to run fast over longer distances. It is for good reason that nobody is generally allowed to follow a polar bear that has changed its behaviour so it might be at risk.

This seems to be exactly what happened in this case, considering a chase over 2.5 hours by helicopter and snow mobile (there is mention of a short rest which is included in that time span), although “polar bear expertise” was present in shape of an expert from the Norwegian Polar Institute. The procedure was obviously too much for the bear, who received further medication after the initial aenesthetisation and died in the helicopter during transport to Kinnvika on Nordaustland.

Eisbären (Edgeøya)

Polar bear family: mother (left, in front) and two second year cubs in good shape.
Mid August, Edgeøya.

The bear was a female with a very low weight of 62 kg. It is believed that she was a first year cub or a very small second year cub. In either case, she should still have been together with her mother.

Corona-virus: Spitsbergen in lockdown-mode

After a lucky return from Antarctica, the only continent currently not directly affected by the Corona-virus (but certainly indirectly), I am now about to catch up with the Spitsbergen news on ths site. It is not that nothing has happened up north. To start where I stopped a few weeks ago: the coal mine Svea Nord was indeed officially closed with a little ceremony on 04 March, putting an end to a good 100 years of mining history in Sveagruva.

I’ll get back to other issues over the next couple of days. Now, the one thing that keeps the world busy and in awe: the Corona-virus – what else? So far, the virus has not reached Spitsbergen. But it will not be possible to keep the settlements fully isolated from the rest of the world forever. The question is, as anywhere, how to controll this transition – if a controlled transition is possible at all.

So far, the idea is to keep all settlements as isolated as possible to protect the local population from the virus. Tourism has come to a complete stop. Everybody who is now travelling to Spitsbergen has to remain in 14 days of quarantine. Exceptions can only be made by the authorities under strict conditions if requested by the employer or an institution. Generally, only Norwegian citizens, residents or people with a work permit (does not apply in Svalbard, but you would need to have a good professional reason to travel up there right now) are allowed in.

Snow mobiles Longyearbyen, Corona-virus

Snow mobiles in Longyearbyen: currently silenced by the Corona-virus.

This will clearly have a significant impact on the local economy: March and April are usually high season within tourism. Hotels and activities are usually fully booked. Currently, however, many companies and jobs in the service industry are at risk, and many guides have already left the island, waiting for better times in their home countries which are usually cheaper places to stay.

This is now in force until 13 April but may be extended. The future development remains to be seen, also with regards to the summer shipping season.

Spitsbergen, the Antarctic and the Corona virus

The winter season should be super busy at this time in Spitsbergen, but instead it is very silent now in Longyearbyen and Barentsburg. No tourists there at all. The only thing that you might hear is the tourism industry crying.

And on this blog and news site: also nothing at the time being.

The Antarctic is the only corona-free continent, but that does not mean that it does not affect us here in the south. We have now been to the Antarctic for a while and I am still far south with Ortelius. So I guess that I am currently the last one in the world who gets any news that seem to be changing by the minute and hence it would probably be silly to post any „news“ here.

Atlantic Ocean

But I did and do still write about our journey here in the south, in the blog on www.antarctic.eu. Also here, the Corona virus currently governs the world. No, not directly. We on Ortelius are all well, health-wise. But it sends us on a strange journey. Not as planned back to the Antarctic Peninsula, but up north and back home. Slowly and with quite a few extra twists and bends that we still need to find out about. Read more in my antarctic blog.

Svea Nord is history

Svea Nord was the largest coal mine ever in Spitsbergen. It belonged to the mining complex of Sveagruva in Van Mijenfjord, together with the settlement of Sveagruva itself, the harbour facilities at Kapp Amsterdam and the mine in Lunckefjellet.

The mine was opened in 2001. A coal seam thickness of up to 6 metres allowed an annual production of 3 million tons. Not recordbreaking on a global scale, but the largest amount that was ever achieved in any mine in Spitsbergen. This put the mining company Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani in a good economical situation for some years around 2008.

Svea Nord coal mine

The longwall-method could be used very economically in Svea Nord with a coal thickness of 4-6 metres.

Then, prices on the world markest went downhill and the economical situation became difficult for the coal mines in Spitsbergen. Job cuts and a struggle for funding further mining operations were the theme of the day in 2013 and following years. The Norwegian government, owner of Store Norske, helped initially out but then decided in 2015 to put mining in Sveagruva on hold. In 2017 the decision followed to abandon all mining activities there altogether, including a removal of the mines and the settlement – a unique step in the history of Spitsbergen.

The mine in Lunckefjellet was closed already in early 2019. This mine was ready for productive operation in 2013, but the productive stage was never actually reached in Lunckefjellet.

Svea Nord

Tunnel in Svea Nord, with mining equipment ready to be removed before the mine is closed.

Now the large mine of Svea Nord is about to be closed. A lot of materials and equipment have been removed and will be shipped out. According to the plan, Svea Nord will be closed for good in March 2020.

At the same time, the clean-up of the settlement of Sveagruva is making progress. Apart from a few old artefacts that are protected as part of the historical heritage of the area, everything is supposed to be removed. In the end, only careful observers should be able to see that people lived here for decades and that this area was the site of industrial mining for almost a century. But there is still a way to go. Closing Svea Nord is a significant step within this process, and it is quite unique in the context of arctic mining: in the 20th century, it was common just to leave things just where they were unless they were valuable enough to remove them.

Svea Nord coal

The very last pieces of coal that have left Svea Nord will serve scientific purposes. Geologist Malte Jochmann and mining engineer Kristin Løvø at work (December 2019).

In December 2019, I had the opportunity to visit Svea Nord together with a team of geologists. While they were taking smaples, I had the chance to do some photography, capturing some impressions of Spitsbergen’s largest coal mine. As a result, I have created a page with photo galleries and panoramas of Svea Nord to make it at least virtually accessible for everybody while the mine is physically closed and inaccessible forever. There is actually a set of several pages, also including Sveagruva (settlement), Lunckefjellet (mine) and Kapp Amsterdam (harbour). They are all accessible through an overview page Svea area (click here).

Avalanche accident at Fridtjovbreen: two persons dead

Two people, both of German nationality, were killed during an avalanche accident at Fridtjovbreen, a glacier south of Barentsburg. Both were travelling as part of a guided group of the Arctic Travel Company in Barentsburg. When Norwegian rescue forces arrived on the scene, they could only declare both persons dead.

c5f_Fridtjovbreen_15April13_049

The Norwegian authorities are informing the relatives of the victims and will investigate the accident. The community of Longyearbyen has established a crisis team to help all people in Barentsburg and Longyearbyen who might be in need.

Polar bear weighed only 62 kg

The polar bear that died in late January during transportation in a helicopter weighed only 62 kg as first results of the post mortem revealed. This means that the bear must either have been very small or extremely thin. Even a small, sub-adult female should have more than 100 kg. Even a second year cub should weigh significantly more than 60 kg, and it should still be with its mother then. A first year cub would not be able to survive on its own, without the mother.

Also chances for survival for a (sub)adult polar bear with a weight of only 62 kg would have been doubtful at best.

This is currently, however, speculation. Further details of the post mortem, which will hopefully enable specialists to draw conclusions regarding the cause of death, will only be available in several weeks.

Young polar bear

Young polar bear together with its mother. The little bear was about 20 months old at the time the picture was taken and its weight was certainly well above 60 kg.

There is also new information regarding the polar bear visits to Longyearbyen in late December: DNA analysis of various samples revealed that it were at least two individuals who came close to and into the settlement then.

100 years Spitsbergen Treaty

The Spitsbergen Treaty was signed exactly 100 years ago, on 09 February 1920, in Versailles. The contract secured suverenity over the Spitsbergen islands but includes several limitations. Click here to read more about the treaty itself on the page dedicated to the treaty within this website.

Spitzbergenvertrag: Wedel Jarlsberg, Paris 1920

Fredrik Wedel Jarlsberg, Norwegian ambassador in Paris,
signs the treaty on 09 February 1920 in Versailles.

The Spitsbergen Treaty was negotiated over several months in Versailles in 1919. Fredrik Wedel Jarlsberg was leading the negotiations on behalf of Norway, but others including Fridtjof Nansen had been part of the political work that had paved the way to the treaty over years.

Today, the treaty is often referred to as the Svalbard Treaty, but the original treaty text does not include the word “Svalbard” at all.

Overlapping private territorial by a number of mining companies from various countries had to be sorted before the treaty could enter force. This happened finally on 14 August 1925, when the “Svalbard law” (Svalbardloven) came into force in Norway, turning the treaty into national law.

The treaty is still in force. There are some disputes regarding the use of marine resources (fishing, oil, gas, other mineral resources) outside the 12 mile zone, but within the 200 mile zone around Svalbard. The concept of these zones was defined much later and they were not part of the treaty, which hence leaves room for different interpretations, depending on whom you ask. Norway claims that the principle of nondiscrimination (equal rights for everybody regardless of nationality) is valid only within the 12-mile zone, but claims exclusive rights in the 200-mile economical zone (outside the 12-mile zone). Other countries do not agree, namely Latvia which was up to now the last country that entered the Spitsbergen Treaty on 13 June 2016 (a few months after North Korea) and Russia. Russia’s ministry of foreign affairs has just recently again released a press note claiming to be unhappy about restrictions of Russian activities in Spitsbergen and expects Norway to accept bilateral talks, something that Norway has never accepted in the past.

Spitzbergenvertrag: Mitgliedsländer

Signatory countries in the Spitsbergen Treaty.

Today, 100 years after the treaty was signed in Paris on 09 February 1920, a number of events and lectures are dedicated to the treaty in Longyearbyen, Norway and other countries.

Anaesthetised polar bear died during transport

The polar bear that was anaesthetised and flown out last night died during the transport in the helicopter, according to the Sysselmannen.

The cause of death is currently unknown. A postmortem examination is expected to clarify this within a few days.

Betäubter Eisbär

An anaesthetised bear during preparations for a helicopter flight to Nordaustland (archive image, 2016).

The bear is said to have been a female that was not tagged.

There is always a remaining risk inherent to anaesthesy, especially as the weight and health condition of the “patient” are mostly unknown or can, at best, be roughly estimated, something that must obviously have been difficult last night in darkness.

Anything beyond this is mere speculation at the time being until the results of the postmortem are available.

Again polar bear in Longyearbyen area, flown out

Again, a polar bear showed up in the Longyearbyen area. The bear was seen yesterday (Thursday, 30 January) at Hotellneset, close to the airport.

Anaesthetised polar bear

An anaesthetised polar bear during preparations for the flight to Kinnvika (archive image, 2016).

The Sysselmannen pushed the bear with the helicopter across Adventfjord to Hiorthhamn. Later, the bear was anaesthetised and flown out to Kinnvika on Nordaustland, about 200 km as the crow flies to the north. It is unlikely that this bear will return to Longyearbyen at any time soon, although this kind of distance and terrain are not an insurmountable obstacle for a polar bear. But chances that the bear has the orientation and motivation to set course for Longyearbyen now are low.

The last case when a bear was anaesthetised near Longyearbyen and flown out, also to Kinnvika, was in April 2016. This bear returned to Longyearbyen in late December 2019 and was shot in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day 2020.

Polar bear experts of the Norwegian Polar Institute were present during the whole operation, as the Sysselmannen informed on Facebook.

New reglations for protected areas on the west- and north coast of Spitsbergen

New regulations for the National Parks on the west coast of Spitsbergen – South Spitsbergen National Park and North Spitsbergen National Park – have been under discussion for a considerable time. They entered force on 20 December 2019, according to a press release by the Norwegian government.

Liefdefjord bird sanctuary: Andøyane

New bird sanctuary Liefdefjord: Andøyane (seen here), Stasjonsøyane, Måkeøyane and Lernerøyane are included. Common eiders and other birds may have a hidden nest behind every driftwood log, so it has never been a good idea to walk around here during the breeding season. Now these islands are seasonally protected by law.

New regulations

There are a couple of changes relevant mainly for ship-based tourism in these areas. Expedition leaders, tour leaders and guides as well as individual tourists such as crews of private yachts need to be aware of these new regulations.

The most important ones are:

  • There is a new bird sanctuary „Liefdefjord“, which includes the island groups of Andøyane, Stasjonsøyane, Måkeøyane and Lernerøyane. The protection mechanism is the same as for the older bird sanctuaries: all traffic is banned from the islands including the waters within 300 metres from the nearest shore from 15 May to 15 August.
    This is probably the most relevant change for ship-based tourism and the only one that will involve important restrictions on regularly visited sites.
  • The bird reserve Blomstrandhamna on the north side of Blomstrandhalvøya is enlarged: now, Indre Breøya is also included.
  • There is now a permanent traffic ban in an area around the warm springs of Trollkjeldene. The exact location is given by a map and a set of coordinates.
    Trollkjeldene comprise several warm springs with sinter terraces south of Bockfjord, a couple of kilometres inland. They are not a frequently visited site. Jotunkjeldene, the smaller springs close to the shore in Bockfjord, are not included in the new regulations and can also be visited in the future (with care, please).
  • New site-specific guidelines will be introduced at a couple of locations. AECO will provide these guidelines to the Sysselmannen. These sites include: Ytre Norskøya, Sallyhamna and Smeerenburg (northwest Spitsbergen), Signehamna and Fjortende Julibukta (Krossfjord), Fuglehuken (Prins Karls Forland), Ahlstrandhalvøya (Van Keulenfjord), Gnålodden and Gåshamna (both in Hornsund).
  • Things have actually even become easier in a few cases: non-motorised boats may pass close to the mainland coast within the 300 m zone of the bird sanctuaries of Boheman (near Bohemanneset in Isfjord) and Prins Heinrichøya / Mietheholmen (east of Ny-Ålesund in Kongsfjord). That will make life easier for kayakers. Any boat that has an engine has to stay outside the 300 m zone just as before, meaning that you can, for example, not pass between the mainland coast and Prins Heinrichøya / Mietheholmen with a Zodiac.
  • Toilet water and greywater may not be discharged off within 500 metres from the coast. This was, so far, only valid within the Nature Reserves; now it is also in force in the National Parks.
  • Motorised traffic on land is prohibited in the Nature Reserves (not new) and in the bird sanctuaries (also not new, but clarified). There is, however, an important exception: snow mobiles are allowed within the bird sanctuary at Kapp Linné until 14 May (the general rules apply, of course – no disturbance of wildlife, no driving on ground that is not frozen and snow-covered).
Trollkjeldene, Bockfjord

Trollkjeldene (Troll springs) in Bockfjord: from now on you have to keep some distance.
Jotunkjeldene, the springs which are close to the shore and more regularly visited, are not affected by new regulations.

All other existing regulations remain in force, including the possibility for trawling in depth greater than 100 metres.

Further current changes include mainly the exact wording of the regulations without implying much of a change in practice. For example, the bird sanctuaries or bird reserves are now „nature reserves for birds“ to make it clear that they have generally the same status as nature reserves, which are Norway’s most strictly protected areas.

More changes to come

The future will see further changes especially in central Spitsbergen: a new adminstration plan will look at important areas including Isfjord, Adventdalen which is next to Longyearbyen and Van Mijenfjord. Changes may include a ban on heavy oil in Isfjord and a maximum size (passenger number) of ships allowed to visit these waters. But these and other possible changes are part of another process that is currently in an early stage.

Monetary fine for disturbance of bird colony at Ossian Sarsfjellet

A tour operator has got a fine of 30,000.00 NOK (3,000 Euro) by the Sysselmannen for disturbance of breeding birds at Ossian Sarsfjellet in Kongsfjord. The ship run by the tour operator had dropped the anchor close to the cliff with the colony. The noise of the anchor chain caused disturbance of the birds, mainly Brünnich’s guillemots and kittywakes.

Ossian Sarsfjellet

Brunich’s guillemots and kittywakes (upper left, with chicks) at Ossian Sarsfjellet.

Disturbance of breeding birds can have serious consequences, for example when eggs or flightless chicks fall out of nests on narrow ledges or when predatory birds such as glaucous gulls raid unguarded nests.

Polar bear again seen in Bolterdalen

Outdoor folks who want to get out near Longyearbyen can not yet return back to normal (whatever that means in Spitsbergen anyway). The polar bear that gave a group of tourists and guides with dog sledges a good adrenalin rush on Wednesday was seen again yesterday (Thursday) afternoon.

On Wednesday, the bear was pushed up Bolterdalen and into Tverrdalen by the Sysselmannen’s helicopter. The hope was that it would, after a rest, continue southwards. But the bear obviously had different ideas and returned to Bolterdalen, where it was met Thursday afternoon on Scott Turnerbreen (-glacier) by Tommy Jordbrudal and his colleague. Tommy has been running a small company offering dog sledge trips in that area for many years and was out to check the conditions on the glacier, which is a popular destination for dog sledge excursions. Scott Turnerbreen has an accessible ice cave and the area is largely snow-mobile free: only locals are allowed to drive there with snow mobiles and even for them Bolterdalen and a wide area around it are off limits for motorised traffic from 01 March every year, meaning that locals and tourists can enjoy a silent area for silent excursions by ski or dog sledge.

But polar bears are not banned from the area, so Tommy and his colleage suddenly had a polar bear just a few metres away from them, investigating their snow mobile. Even a warning shot with a revolver did not make much of an impression on the bear.

Bolterdalen

Bolterdalen (seen from Soleietoppen): currently not a polar-bear-free area.
Scott Turnerbreen on the left hand side.

Tommy has been running trips in Bolterdalen for 12 years now, so during the season he and his guides are there on a very regularly basis and he says that he has never seen a polar bear track or even a bear there before. Now the Sysselmannen went out again by helicopter, trying to sort the situation out.

This author hopes that he does not have to write again about incidents where life, human or animal, came to any harm.

Norwegian government wants to discuss certification requirements for guides

The discussion about formal requirements for guides is not new, but it has now got a significant boost as the Norwegian government has declared a need for this discussion.

“Guide” is, so far, not a formally qualified profession. There are efforts, private and industry-based, to introduce certification for guides, but until now, basically everybody can come, claim to be a guide and try to find work. This has actually worked well over many years as a limited number of tourists was met by an also limited but sufficiently large number of guides who were enthusiasts of the outdoors and had, as such, built up sufficient knowledge, skills and experience to lead tourists in arctic nature, summer or winter, by ski, dog sledge, snow mobile, boat, ship, hiking, whatever.

But times have changed. Recent years have seen a number of new companies who want their share of the tourism market in the Arctic, often in the attractive day trip market in Longyearbyen’s surroundings. A “market”: that’s what it is now, a market with a huge turnover where a lot of money is made by some. Not a niche anymore where a limited number of enthusiasts find their way of life with a lot of personal idealism and effort. Of course they still exist, but the total picture is by now far more complex.

The grown and still growing market implies an increased need for guides, and it is not just a few observers who are not always satisfied with the level of knowledge, experience and skill that they see.

Tourists with guides: snow mobile group, Colesdalen

Tourist group with guide in Colesdalen: guide is, so far, an open profession.

This is not just annoying, but may also be dangerous. In Spitsbergen, guides handle weapons, boats, snow mobiles and dog sledges on a regular basis, they deal with arctic weather, have to expect meeting a polar bear at any time in the field and take responsibility for the safety of people in these conditions. Additionally, guides are a key factor when it comes to environmental issues. It is fully possible to visit cultural heritage sites, observe wildlife and walk in the nature without destroying or disturbing anything, but the opposite may also happen and competent leadership out in the field is key in this context.

Seen in this light, one may wonder why certification requirements for guides have not already been introduced a long time ago, also as an alternative to closing sites and even large areas, as was discussed no less than a good 10 years ago. Even the local industry sector organisation Visit Svalbard has now expressed themselves positively towards this issue – of course expecting to be part of such a process. Everybody in the business knows that for example a serious accidents would do harm not only to those directly involved but to the whole industry if it turns out that lack of qualification on behalf of the guides was a factor.

Safety and environmental matters are issues that local guides have also been aware of for quite a while, according to the Svalbard Guide Association. And of course “old” guides with years of solid experience are not always happy when young colleages without relevant experience and skills come and take their jobs, an issue that is relevant not only for environmental and safety concerns but also when it comes to working conditions in the industry.

Spitsbergen’s glacier will, however, probably still lose a good bit of ice until requirements for guide certification has been formalised on a legal level: The Norwegian government’s recent press release just indicated a need to discuss the issue. There are still a lot of practical questions to be answered regarding the qualification and certifaction process.

Close encounter with polar bear in Bolterdalen

Yet again, a polar bear has been in the area near Longyearbyen. This time, it was not just tracks in the snow, but a very close encounter of a group of 4 dog sledges with guides and tourists in Bolterdalen. The group was returning from Scott Turnerbreen, a glacier that is a popular destination for (half) day trips by dog sledge, to the dogyard of Green Dog in Bolterdalen close to Adventdalen. Suddenly the bear was standing on a terrace next to the route, much to everybodies surprise, probably including the bear. The bear came and sniffed on the dogs of the first sledge, while the tourists on the sledge – a woman and her 11 year old daughter – were watching. The guide, Marcel Starinsky from Slovakia, realised that he did not even have time to get is rifle ready. Instead, he grabbed a piece of rope and gave the bear a slab on the nose. Then, the bear went a bit away, passed the other sledges and disappeared in the darkness. The whole event took probably less than a minute, as the guides told Svalbardposten later.

The group then returned to the dogyard and guides and tourists took their time together to digest this very unusual experience. As far as known, everybody had his or her nerves under control during the event and according to Marcel Starinsky and his colleague, Daniel Stilling Germer from Denmark, the bear did not show any signs of aggression. It would be interesting to hear the story from the woman and her daugher on the first sledge. They have certainly got a story to tell now.

Polar night

Out on tour in darkness and snow.
It can be virtually impossible to see what is going on nearby.

Later, the polar bear was again seen near the dogyard, but was then driven away by the Sysselmannen’s helicopter through Bolterdalen and towards Reindalen.

It is hard to say if this bear had anything to do with the tracks that were recently seen on Longyearbreen. These tracks were followed by the Sysselmannen the west, up to Kapp Laila in Colesbukta, whereas the bear in the event narrated here is assumed to have come from Adventdalen, from the east. This at least suggests that it is not one and the same animal.

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News-Listing live generated at 2020/September/22 at 23:39:34 Uhr (GMT+1)
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