The Solar Storm of a Lifetime

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.” -Alexander Graham Bell

Imagine a beautiful, clear day. The Sun is shining, the skies are clear, and you couldn’t ask for a nicer day.

Image credit: © 2012 Free HD wallpapers.

All of a sudden, the Sun itself appears to brighten, just for a brief amount of time, like it released an extra burst of energy. That night, some 17 hours later, the most spectacular auroral display ever brightens the night in a way you never imagined.

Image credit: Jónína Óskarsdóttir.

Workers across the United States awaken at 1 AM, because the sky is as bright as the dawn. Aurorae illuminate the skies as far south as the caribbean, beneath the Tropic of Cancer. And long, electricity-carrying wires spark, start fires and even operate and send signals when there’s no electricity!

Image credit: Captain Electric blog, via http://thecaptainelectric.com/.

This isn’t a science-fiction scenario; this is history.

This is what a catastrophic Solar Storm looks like, and this actually occurred exactly as described in 1859.

Image credit: Shahrin Ahmad, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The way this actually happens is that the Sun, rather than being this constant ball of nuclear fire in the sky, has an active surface, complete with an intricate magnetic structure, temperature variations, and occasional flares and mass ejections.

Image credit: NASA / GSFC / SDO.

For reasons we don’t completely understand, the Sun’s activity levels ebb and peak on an 11-year timescale known as the Solar Cycle, and 2013 is expected to be the peak year of our current cycle. This means we’re more likely to see larger numbers of flares, as well as stronger-than-average flares, this year.

Image credit: Hathaway / NASA / GSFC.

Typically (but not always), these flares pose no danger to anything here on Earth, for a variety of reasons.

Image credit: NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

1.) Most solar flares are not directed anywhere near the Earth. Space is a big place, and even at our relatively close distance of 93 million miles (or 150 million km) from the Sun, that’s a long way away. Even though most sunspots occur near the solar equator, more than 95% of flares and ejections, when they occur, never impact our planet at all.

But sometimes, they do.

Image credit: NASA.

2.) Most flares are too small, too slow, and sub-optimally aligned to get past the Earth’s magnetic field. Our magnetic field is awesome! Sure, it might be less than 1 Gauss at the surface (or 0.0001 Tesla, for you mks sticklers out there), barely enough to deflect your compass needles towards the magnetic poles. But the field extends far into space, and the matter ejected are almost exclusively charged particles, which typically move at speeds of only a million miles an hour.

These particles are bent by our magnetic field (as are all charged particles moving through a magnetic field) and will mostly be deflected away from the Earth. The ones that are bent into the Earth will crash into our upper atmosphere; this is the cause of nearly all auroral events.

Image credit: NASA / ISS expedition crew 23.

3.) Out atmosphere is sufficiently thick to prevent these charged particles from irradiating us. Even if the flare moves quickly (or at about five million miles-per-hour), is huge (containing billions of tons of matter), and is aimed directly at us, the charged particles will never make it through our atmosphere, down to the surface. Unless you’re in space (for some reason) at the time, you won’t receive any more radiation than you normally would, and there is no biological risk.

But there is one real risk, and it’s a consequence of our physical laws of electromagnetism.

Image credit: NASA.

A charged particle is bent as it moves through a magnetic field because of the connection between electricity and magnetism. But that same connection means that a change in electric currents — which are made by the motion of charged particles — create changing magnetic fields. And if you have a changing magnetic field either around a wire or through a loop or coil of wire, you will generate electric currents!

So while there may not be a danger to you, there is a huge danger to electronics, ranging from automobiles to transformers to — most frighteningly of all — the entire power grid! That’s the real danger of a solar storm: an event similar to the 1859 Carrington event could cause anywhere between an estimated $1-to-$2 trillion of damage.

Image credit: NASA.

With the space weather satellites we have up now, we would have about a half-day’s warning to shut down our power stations and voluntarily shut off the grid in the event of such a flare. These things can not be predicted, and neither can their interaction with the interplanetary-and-Earth’s magnetic field, so you must never listen to fear-mongers who tell you a catastrophic solar flare is imminent; we can only be prepared to react when one is detected.

Ideally, we’d be able to either upgrade the grid or to simply install a sufficient amount of electrical grounding, but practically, the first option is a long-term project that no one is working on, and the second one is continuously thwarted by thievery of copper wire.

Image credit: Michael Maloney / San Francisco Chronicle.

(Yes, that’s you, Billy Riggins!) People will risk their lives — and many lose them to electrocution in the process — to steal the one thing that could protect them from power surges.

There’s no need to be afraid of these things, but you do need to be prepared. If an ultra-massive, fast-moving coronal mass ejection ever heads directly towards Earth, you are literally taking your life into your hands if you do not shut down and unplug all of your electronic devices — and your power companies deliberately black out your neighborhood — until the storm passes.

That’s the only way we have of safely dealing with things now. But you should also keep in mind that these are once-in-a-century events, and only every five centuries (on average) do we get an event like we did in 1859. So be aware, be informed, and know how to deal with it if it happens, but don’t lose any sleep over it!

Instead, your best bet is — when applicable — to go outside and enjoy the auroral show!

Image credit: Bud Kuenzli.

And if the “catastrophic” flare happens, be smart, and let others know — calmly and rationally — what they should do to protect themselves and their property. It’s nothing to be afraid of as long as you know what to do!

Comments

  1. #1 Dave w.
    January 30, 2013

    Would killing the power to my house at the meter work, or is the actual house wiring the issue? I’d rather flip one big ass breaker than try to actually unplug everything I own. Good article, Ethan, as always!

  2. #2 D. Schultz
    January 30, 2013

    I looked into the effect of geomagnetic storms on the power distribution system a while back and the impression I got is that the problem is mostly with long haul transmission lines. The voltages are on the order of volts/kilometer so house wiring is far too short to develop dangerous or even significant voltages.

    The problem is that the storm induces a low frequency current which compared to 60Hz is effectively DC. DC currents do not get along well at all with transformers. The transformers overheat and burn out.

    The cure turns out to be to insert DC blocking capacitors between the transmission lines and transformers. Some systems have done this but most haven’t.

    http://www.ornl.gov/sci/ees/etsd/pes/pubs/ferc_Meta-R-319.pdf

  3. #3 Michael Kelsey
    SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
    January 30, 2013

    @Ethan: I’m not an MKS stickler, but I am a units stickler :-) If you’re going to spell out the names, do not capitalize them: the Earth’s geomagnetic field is about 1 gauss at the surface (or 0.0001 tesla). If you abbreviate the units, the abbreviations are capitalized (1 G = 1e-4 T).

  4. #4 Tony P
    January 30, 2013

    All I know is we’re headed back into Solar Max again – it means the E layers will be all nice and ionized for HF communications goodness!

  5. #5 Phil Shaffer
    upstairs in my office
    January 31, 2013

    Perhaps an even worse consequence, beyond a disturbance in the power grid, would be destruction of the GPS system and communications satellites. I have no direct knowledge, but the satellites would appear to be in a particularly vulnerable position. Is there any protection built in?
    Also – I am a physician and the consequences of cutting power to a hospital, even planned, for any time will be very severe, and life threatening.
    You may be the best salesman for home generators.

  6. #6 Sinisa Lazarek
    January 31, 2013

    The issue frying circuits is not mainly the problem in the home. Yes.. you’ll loose your TV, but all the industry grade switches and surge protectors in your cities power grid will be blown. In other words the whole area, state, continent is without power. And even if you had spare ones for all.. it would still take months to fix all of them if not years for all the damage to the grid. You’re looking at midevil times for half the planet.. not good.

  7. #7 eric
    January 31, 2013

    @2: I could be wrong in all of this, but I believe the problem has to do with more than just voltage. A CME produces DC, in circuits designed for AC. Moreover, I think most surge and circuit protection is designed around very short (millisecond) events; this will be an event lasting several orders of magnitude longer, so even though the voltage is low, the total energy delivered to the system is going to be much higher (than a regular surge).

  8. #8 william parker
    U.k
    January 31, 2013

    Question is really is this solar storm this year going to really happen Iv read alot on this since summer 2012 and Im getting a mixed vibe about it Nasa says it will be a passing storm and will not even affect are systems it will just be like a passing cloud, then lots of other web sites says its going to be a big storm with black outs and power failures,and its going to happen around May 2013 or Summer 2013. So who do we belive ? Nasa say no panic 20 other web sites say Panic and this site Iv just read say prepair now and be ready what is the truth really, I feel its going to be another fake doomsday prediction and we wont see nothing just all this rubbish hype online.

  9. #9 Eric Lund
    January 31, 2013

    You may be the best salesman for home generators.

    Even here, there is a problem. For generators that run on gasoline or diesel, you need to refuel every so often. The gas pumps you are counting on to replenish your fuel supply depend on electricity and therefore won’t be working either. (I’ve seen a photograph from after the 1938 hurricane of a gas station that rigged a bicycle chain to pump gas, but I don’t think that can be done with modern gas pumps.) That also means that most vehicles will be unable to continue running after a few days (this is why you should fill your gas tank before the severe weather hits, even if you plan to ride out the hurricane at home). Therefore systems that depend on delivering propane to your house will also collapse. I don’t know for sure whether natural gas services will be disrupted, but if they depend on electric powered pumps, they will go down too.

    The reason this is generally not a problem in severe weather events is because even when such events cause weeks-long power outages, the entire grid doesn’t collapse. Within a couple of days of the event, power will have been restored to at least some gas stations in the vicinity, so you can keep your generator supplied with fuel until the repair crews bring your neighborhood back on line. Even in the worst events, there will likely still be power in some part of your county. A Carrington-level geomagnetic storm would affect a much wider area (as happened in 1989 when a strong geomagnetic storm knocked out power for the entire province of Quebec), and if it takes more than a few transformer replacements to get the backbone running, it may be days to weeks before you can resupply your fuel (most of Quebec was back on line within nine hours after the 1989 event). Your generator probably can’t stay up that long.

  10. #10 Ethan
    January 31, 2013

    Dave w. @1,

    The reason you’ll want to unplug everything you own is because the transmission lines that feed your house will have incredibly large DC (one-way) currents induced in them.

    Even if the power company cuts the power entirely, unless they physically sever the line to your home, you can experience incredible surges in those lines that can fry your wiring, your electronics, your surge protectors, and anything else that’s hooked up.

    Imagine what would happen to your electronics if your power lines got struck by lightning; that’s a fairly good analogy. So yes, if this once-in-500-years even happens, you will want to go through the hassle of unplugging everything you own. Because it’s a lot better than having to replace it.

  11. #11 Phil Shaffer
    February 1, 2013

    Generator I would buy would be propane/natural gas dual source. Something has to generate the energy to pressurize the gas line, I would have to think it would be electricity.
    I think I would turn of the house’s main power. There are certain important things (furnace, AC) that have no plug and I would like to preserve them as well.
    I have seen a few long term power outages in our area (columbus) and we are not equipped at all to handle this. In particular, in winter, if a large proportion of the town is down, people will die. There is no capacity to heat the majority of our homes.

  12. #12 Phil Shaffer
    February 1, 2013

    After a little more thought – this would be global. There would severe disruptions to supply chains. People will be starving. This will put pressure on governments to supply the people, and they will likely look next door, in many cases. This could start a number of wars. But of course, most of the war machines wouldn’t work.
    I wonder if building Faraday cages around the electrical generation buildings would be protective enough. I imagine it would depend on the intensity of the event.

  13. #13 Eric Lund
    February 1, 2013

    I wonder if building Faraday cages around the electrical generation buildings would be protective enough.

    It’s not the generation buildings that are the problem, it’s the transmission lines. You’re effectively dealing with an antenna thousands of kilometers long. The James Bay station is about 1000 km north of Montreal. In the continental US, there are three grid networks which cover the east, the west, and Texas. The eastern grid covers from Maine south to Florida and west to eastern Montana.

    There are measures you can take to mitigate the problem. After the 1989 blackout, Hydro Quebec took those measures with their power lines, and I think other Canadian electricity companies have done so as well. Most US electric companies have not.

  14. #14 Margaret Diefenderfer
    Reading, PA USA
    February 1, 2013

    The idea that these events may be predictable with any sort of precision is unscientific, at the very least. The statement “… these are once-in-a-century events, and only every five centuries (on average) do we get an event like we did in 1859…” might perhaps be true, but it tells us nothing about the actual occurrence of the events. A coin may show heads 50% of the time, on average, but that does not mean that it cannot land on tails 4 times in a row. So too here – an event happening, on average, once in a century, (over what measured duration, pray tell?) could easily occur twice in a 50 year period without disturbing the long-term averages.

  15. #15 R. L. Hails Sr. P. E.
    February 1, 2013

    Excellent article, better comments. (I engineered 68 power plants, and uncounted distribution systems.) The potential destruction will be induced in long runs of ungrounded conductors. Whatever they are connected to is vulnerable to being destroyed. Disconnection is the solution, get off the grid.

    The problem with distributed personal generation is tankage, long time fossil fuel supply, days or weeks worth of prime fuel. If the grid collapses, the distribution of all fuels will be severely curtailed. Emergency solar , if protected, will provide communication & computing energy, but not power a home.

    This is the “same” problem has a high altitude H bomb pulse, EMP (much different time frame). The solution to both is shielding and grounding, a most difficult problem.

    IMHO grid stability, not climate change, is the greatest threat to our society. Our grid is junk status. Masses will die if it collapses.

  16. #16 Kdizzle
    February 1, 2013

    Maybe it will take a disaster on the order of the 1859 flare to bring about the political will to upgrade our country’s ancient power grid.

    It usually takes disaster for Americans to wake up to reality.

  17. #17 eric
    February 1, 2013

    It usually takes disaster for Americans to wake up to reality.

    Congress is aware. DHS is aware. NASA is very aware. There is very little incentive to spend money on it, particularly in this fiscal climate.

    So you’re right about the politcial will thing, but ‘wake up’ gives the wrong impression. Our reps are awake to the threat. Spending a lot of money on it is just political death.

    And don’t expect much to change after we get hit with a CME either. Sure, there will be a flurry of new standards passed and such, but normal monied interests and reelection issues and all of that will quickly come back in force. If you don’t believe me, consider that the nation is currently rebuilding the levee system to withstand category 3 storms after getting hit with a category 4 hurricane.

  18. #18 ablay
    Texas
    February 1, 2013

    One question I haven’t seen anyone ask about this: How does this sort of event affect individuals with implanted electronic medical devices (i.e., pacemakers, cochlear implants, etc.)? Should we just say goodbye to grandparents because their pacemakers are toast or would this be unlikely to harm them?

  19. #19 jschmidt
    February 1, 2013

    underground power lines? Might be enough protection for them but the main above ground lines will be the problem.
    Well our energy grid is in need of a major overhaul and this would be a good kick start to jobs. But DC doesn’t have the will.

  20. #20 CB
    February 1, 2013

    Underground power lines won’t protect from induced currents. It might allow more shielding than you can string from a power line, though.

    On the political issue… Our reps are aware of the problem of solar flares.

    Just like they were aware of the problems of the levies in New Orleans.

    Just like they were aware of the problems with the seawall in Galveston.

    Oh well.

  21. #21 jschmidt
    February 1, 2013

    Cb- understand- thanks for the info. Politically we are a reactive nation because that;s when everyone gets upset. Unfortunately, a massive nationwide power outage lasting weeks will cause chaos and violence. I see we have all of 20 comments. That is the problem. Awareness is not widespread, however, Lindsey Lohan’s latest problems are.

  22. #22 jschmidt
    February 1, 2013

    ablay- Interesting question. I don’t think it is the same as an EMP which can fry electronics, but I;m not an expert in this, despite my EE degree. Some with more knowledge can respond. If shielding would work, I;m not sure medicare would pay.

  23. #23 D. Schultz
    February 1, 2013

    Implanted electronics are safe. Their daily exposure to changing magnetic fields is much greater than that from a geomagnetic storm. Just moving around in the Earth’s normal 25 to 65 microTesla field is far far worse than a bad 2,000 nano-Tesla/min geomagnetic storm. In other words, it will do nothing.

    Transmission lines are also too small. The voltage generated via direct magnetic induction is less than 1mv/km. The problem is from connecting a long low resistance wire to two points on the ground at different voltages.

  24. #24 G
    California USA
    February 2, 2013

    Key question: can we count on government and the mainstream media to issue a warning of an impending significant event?

    I have no problem with unplugging everything for a couple of days: in California we can call that a “household earthquake drill” and put up with a little inconvenience while we eat MREs or canned food, and read books by flashlight after coming in from watching the nifty aurorae. (Don’t forget to store enough clean water: two gallons per person per day.)

    What bugs me though is the prospect of not getting any kind of warning, because the media don’t want to “cause a panic.”

    BTW, landline telephone lines (real ones, analog loop to the central office, not the newer types of combined phone/broadband/video services delivered via cable TV, which depend on the AC power grid and will fail along with cellphones) have over-voltage discharge devices in the station protectors where the wiring enters the building. So go out and get an inexpensive “2500 set” (USA) or “GPO 746″ (UK) at the flea market, neither of which depend on grid power, and plug it into your landline phone jack, and that takes care of that.

    What I’d also suggest is for folks who are concerned about staying on the internet, buy a small basic solar setup with enough capacity to power their laptops and broadband devices (e.g. DSL modem or cablemodem, and router). One small solar panel and a battery and inverter should be sufficient for those essentials plus a small LED light for task lighting. During the day you can prop up the solar panel next to your house and let it charge up the battery. Contact any good local solar contractor in your area to design this and sell you the components all pre-wired and connectorized for use.

  25. #25 barbara knowlden
    northern NY
    February 7, 2013

    Well, very enlightening…being I work for a huge power company in the field…& needless to say if they have a plan for such a thing..non of us field workers have heard it yet..LOL lets hope it don’t happen…as I am sure this is the stance most power companies are taking…wth one would think they would try to have a plan in place…just in case??????

  26. #26 barbara knowlden
    norther ny
    February 7, 2013

    Oh,,, & all u people…turning off the mains in your homes will not help the power gird…although if you hear in time it may save some of your own electronic appliances…

  27. #27 barbara knowlden
    February 7, 2013

    Ha! Eric Lund…wth kind of barrier could one build around a substation to prevent harm & It would not matter…if it hits…it will be one major fault that will trip the National/internation grid…..but lucky for us…It most likely will not happen

  28. #28 barbara knowlden
    February 7, 2013

    oh,,, & G if the whole power grid goes down…ur solar panel will not help you with ur cell phone or any other electronic new age device…LOL

  29. #29 Wow
    February 8, 2013

    “although if you hear in time it may save some of your own electronic appliances…”

    well, yes, this is why it’s being advised to be done, babs.

  30. #30 Nigel Williams
    February 9, 2013

    With the recent USA storm one USA nuclear power plant today is running on its stand by generators reliant on resupply of their fuel tanks. If the national grid goes out so does all fuel supply including pumps at the local fuel depot, distribution and refining. No fuel then all your nuke power plants will do Fukushimas. Not a nice thought.

  31. [...] There are many predictions about the effect solar systems could have in the future; the worst being that a storm could cost the United States $2 trillion in damages to power networks and communications systems.  An increase in solar storm activity is expected during the summer of 2013, when we are at the peak of the current 11-year Solar Cycle timescale. [...]

  32. #32 Danielle Harms
    Morgantown
    February 12, 2013

    We all know that this is bound to happen again eventually, but now there is so much technology to prepare us for a catastrophic event such as this one. Now you can turn on the weather and forecasters will tell you when there’s going to be a meteor shower. Just the other day I turned on the radio and I heard them talking about how this solar flare would arise soon. I think as long as you unplug your computer at night and turn off your cell phone things should turn out fine. Personally, I believe we’re overreacting. If you stay on top of research and are responsible with appliances, then everything will be alright. However, this is science and it’s inevitable. We just have to learn how to accept nature in a world of technology.

  33. #33 Sean Brown
    Morgantown
    February 12, 2013

    Along with the post above, thanks to articles like these we are now more prepared for the eventual solar storm. With how connected we all are I think that enough people would be informed of a storm in enough time to turn off and unplug they’re electrical devices. However as this article points out http://www.inquisitr.com/412870/noaa-scientists-on-high-alert-massive-solar-flare-could-damage-the-power-grid/ one of the more likely consequences would be we may be without satellites for an extended period of time if they could not be shut off in time. If in fact the satellites do go down it would be interesting to see how society reacts. I would think that especially with today’s technology we would be fine, but there is always that chance that something could go very wrong.

  34. #34 Amber Roberts
    Morgantown
    February 12, 2013

    In many cases history always finds a way to repeat itself. Though with the world being much more technologically advanced it helps us but can also hurt us. It is great that we will be able to be warned that this is going to happen. But, it will be interesting to see the whole to have to completely shut down to prevent a lot of damage. We have to think about more than just the pretty lights we are going to be able to see. Can the world handle being completely shut down. More importantly can our own country be able to handle this. The stock market was only down for a few seconds and we are still facing the side effects from that. This may be a bigger concern then we think.

  35. #35 Ethan
    February 12, 2013

    There are a lot of new commenters from Morgantown, WV. I’m curious, is there a project in one of the courses at WVU that brought you here?

  36. #36 Hannah Marcum
    February 12, 2013

    I think that people are overreacting about the solar storm. With all the technology today, it is possible for scientists to know when a disturbance will be happening. This makes it easier for people to have a warning ahead of time. But sometimes, electronics fail us and won’t tell us the proper time when the storm will hit. So all we can really do is be as prepared as we can because we never know the exact time something is going to happen.

  37. #37 Gabriella Jenab
    Morgantown (WVU)
    February 12, 2013

    As stated in the blog, the possibility of an event like a solar storm occurring in my lifetime is slim to none, but I find it very interesting how the preparation for the storm could be so simple but yet almost impossible. Turning off an electronic device is mind-numbingly simple, but trying to get the entire population of the world to turn off their electronic devices would be nearly impossible. It is also interesting that the last solar storm was in 1859 when there was not a GPS satellite in orbit. Does that mean that the storm did no damage (since there was not exactly an abundance of electronic devices) and was only observed as an “auroral show?” Anyway, it is very interesting to think about phenomena like solar systems even if they are not exactly threatening at the present moment.

  38. [...] The Solar Storm of a Lifetime – Starts With A Bang [...]

  39. #39 Sean S
    February 13, 2013

    Something like this possible event has not happened since 1859, and according to the article the sun goes through this phase of hyperactivity every 11 years. Seeing as we made it through the last century with a lot of technology (maybe not as much as we rely on today) without any problems I think we need not worry. If we have a half-day’s warning that is more than enough time with our modern day media, and social media for that matter, to get it around to as many people as possible to unplug all electronics for a period of 12-48 hours. As soon as this warning goes out, the electric compannies will indubitably turn of all their transformers as quickly as possible regardless of customer knowledge of the imminent danger. Obviously this will come with some troubles to the entire world economy and create many problems in big cities as well as small towns, however these issues do not compare to what would happen if a warning would not get out. With all this being said, hopefully the earth does miss one of these potential monster solar storms, and makes it through upcoming 11 year cycles as well. I think if we can make it through just a few more, our technology and power systems will so sophisticated they will be able to defend themselves.

  40. #40 Elvina Fredieu
    February 13, 2013

    I agree, but we all need to realize that adding Solar on their property is an purchase that should increase the actual valuation of their home if / when they decide to sell. With the environment the way it is going we are not able to underestimate any product or service that supplies free energy at no cost to both the shopper and more notably the environment!

  41. #41 K Tessler (no relation)
    uk
    February 20, 2013

    Is there a potential advantage to getting a direct hit with a solar storm? All that free energy pouring forth… with new materials being engineered I can imagine a technology that is able to absorb and safely store the energy so that the power may be then utilised at low cost. I’m reminded that the chinese script for ‘crisis’ is the same for ‘opportunity’.

  42. #42 Eric
    USA
    April 10, 2013

    Question:
    Do solar storms damage solar panels?

  43. #43 Wow
    April 10, 2013

    Answer: No.

  44. #45 Grace
    November 10, 2013

    To Ethan Siegel: I am looking to find the original source of an image you use in this blog.
    It’s the large image detailing possible damage on Earth resulting from a solar storm. It’s just under a half of the way down the page in the above web-link and is below the phrase: “But there is one real risk, and it’s a consequence of our physical laws of electromagnetism.”
    It’s exactly what I need, but I want to make sure that I reference it correctly. Could you give me the original link to it?

  45. #46 Ethan
    November 10, 2013

    The place I got the image from was simply from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the only credit I’ve seen ascribed to it is “NASA.”

    However, all NASA images are in the public domain, and so although you should double check, I believe you are in the clear to use it for pretty much any purposes you like.

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