Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Nature Debauched

On August 12, a young woman lost her life.

In northern Idaho, a U.S. Forest Service firefighter died on Sunday when she was crushed by a falling tree while working to contain a 50-acre (20-hectare) blaze in steep, forested terrain, Forest Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown said on Monday.

According to an updated article, the Forest Service is still "planning" on conducting a formal investigation.  My guess is they will never adequately explain why the tree fell, and this is another tragedy to be added to all the others that continue unabated - from the jogger in Philadelphia, the family sleeping in their tent in a New Jersey campground , the baby in his mother's arms at New York's Central Park Zoo, the motorist in Virginia last month...and countless others in storms.  I'm afraid we are getting used to the idea that trees crush people on a routine basis.

20-year-old Anne Veseth of Moscow was a firefighter for the Nez Perce/Clearwater National Forest.
The Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest supervisor says Veseth was struck Sunday afternoon when one tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to fall in a domino effect.

There are enormous wildfires blazing in other countries and states in the US as well, including Washington.  You can search for status at the Incident Information System maintained by various government agencies, which is the source of this map of the Taylor Bridge Fire in the southeastern region of the state.
 They featured this ironic sign.
Of course, record-breaking drought and heat are major factors in the number, size and ferocity of these uncontrollable blazes.  On the other hand, trees falling unexpectedly and more wildfires are just two of many disasters that can be expected to result because vegetation is in dieback due to the ozone it absorbs.  Washington State is not considered to be even unusually dry, and yet it is the location of some of the worst of the fires:
If you look carefully, you can see the windmills still standing in the far left corner of this aerial photo of charred hills.
Washington State Dept. of Natural Resources
These are screenshots from a video that shows an army helicopter scooping up water from a pond to carry to one of the fires, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one.
No wonder the forest is burning - look at the bare tree branches beneath the helicopter, and in the treeline in the foreground of the image below:
There is a video embedded in a news article from Canada about the precipitous decline in the population of a caribou herd that migrates between Quebec and Labrador.  It's worth watching, because the interview conveys better than the article just how concerned officials are, and also that no one really has any idea why the death rate is so rapid that the herd is in danger of disappearing - although Minister French, pictured in the screenshot below, does mention food supply, but without any explanation as to why it has become insufficient to support the caribou.
Neither he nor the reporter in the next image remark on the very dead trees in the background, or wonder whether perhaps vegetation dying off from toxic invisible air pollution - oh, and having decreased nutritive quality in what remains - might have anything to do with starving wildlife.  I'll paste the text of the interview, after the remainder of pictures from my visit to Lexington.
The University of Kentucky Arboretum was disappointing - the young trees were in poor shape, and the old ones were conspicuously dead...although I did find a perfect rose.
As usual I want to point out that both old and young trees are about equally (fatally) affected by the composition of the atmosphere.
Even very young trees have corroded bark.
And big old trees became hollow and rotten long before this year's drought.
Chlorotic, yellowing leaves are classic symptoms of ozone.
I suppose someone thought this tree that died before it's time would be less depressing as a bottle-holder.
I made Sophie stand in front of this trunk because otherwise it would be difficult to imagine how huge it is.
These pieces were cut from the upper portion - the base must have been even larger.
The arboretum has left hulks strewn around the grounds.
See the little new sapling that has completely brown leaves?
This tree, like many others is turning fall color in early August - which is known as premature senescence.
Here is the transcript of the report about caribou:

A new survey by wildlife officials in two provinces shows an astonishing decline in the population of what had been a major caribou herd.  The George River herd, which migrates between Quebec and Labrador, now has a population of about 27,600 animals, according to a census completed in July.  That's down from 74,000 animals in a 2010 census, and a drop of 93 per cent from a census done in 2001. [down from 800,000 in the '80's according to the video]

"Predators play a role, we know disease plays a role, but these are minor factors. It could be a total tsunami, if you will, of variables that are coming against them right now," said Terry French, Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of environment and conservation.

Wildlife biologists have not been able to explain why the numbers have dropped so far, so fast, but they expect even worse news in the months ahead.  
The herd is expected to drop below 25,000 animals by this October, because more adults are dying than calves are surviving.

Hunting of the herd has been severely restricted over the years. French said discussions are continuing with aboriginal groups about banning the hunt altogether.

"We are certainly looking at a total allowable harvest — you know, set a number of the amount of animals that can be taken. Whether that number will be zero is yet to be seen," he said.

French also said concerns that the herd could be wiped out are real.

The US Forest Service has just published a new report, a collaborative effort with dozens of academics, called Changing Climate, Changing Forests:  The Impacts of Climate Change on 
Forests of the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada.  Since it draws on research that was published in 2009, it is based on data that is already obsolete in our shattering ecosystem, and conveniently doesn't account for the rapid decimation that began in earnest starting in 2008.  It's interesting anyway because it is meant to be a comprehensive synthesis of research from the Northeastern US and Canada which "...shows that the climate of the region has become warmer and wetter over the past 100 years and that there are more extreme precipitation events."

So whether the "experts" want to blame drought for tree decline elsewhere, which they most certainly prefer to air pollution, it doesn't apply, apparently, for this particular region which has become wetter over the past 100 years, yet where dead trees are so common they feature prominently even in the first two photos chosen to illustrate the publication.  This one has bare branches protruding in the foreground - and many standing dead pines across the lake.
Did they choose these deliberately to demonstrate the death of forests or can they just not find a picture anymore without dead trees in it?
Following in italics will be excerpts from the study, which represent pretty much the only references I could find that had anything to do with ozone.  The rest of the photos are from my recent drive across Pennsylvania.  This is countryside that has all the voluptuous appeal of a formerly seductive but hopelessly degenerate victim of debauchery...kind of like Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet.
I stopped briefly on Route 30 after I crossed a bridge where suddenly, in the midst of forests and farm fields, appeared a giant pile of metal scrap far below in a ravine.
 There are crushed cars and other unidentifiable heaps of twisted, broken, rusted iron and steel.
The brown tops of trees, probably mostly locust, overshadowed the junkyard.
 A large machine scurried back and forth like a frantic crab, ceaselessly sorting the piles.
Meanwhile, directly across the highway on the other side of the bridge, logs were stacked in rows.
For miles the highway was clogged with huge lumber trucks, and signs even inside the state parks warned motorists to make way for them.
Here too, large machinery was busy.
 The leaves along the road were all burnt like this sumac.
 The toughest roadside weeds were necrotic.
 A close up of locust leaves shows why the crowns look brown from a distance.
Even when they aren't brown, they are thin.
Apparently, rural Pennsylvania harbors a huge car graveyard, not far from that bridge.  In the bright light, they shimmered blindingly in countless thousands.
I happened to pass by the memorial site where Flight 93 crashed on September 11, 2001.
All around it now are wind turbines.
Perhaps if, instead of mourning in America, we'd been installing them with a few solar panels in the years since Carter was President, 9/11 would have never happened.
The highway winds up and down mountains - I was surprised at how steep the terrain is in western PA.  Even though there are billions of trees, always now, there are many standing stark and wizened above the shrinking canopy.  These pictures are from the eastbound descent of Mount Ararat, starting at around the 2,464 ft. elevation.  Following are excerpts from the Forest Service report.

p. 21-22, "Confounding Factors"

Air Pollution  Air-borne pollutants can change productivity and inluence how trees respond to climate change. Some of the most important pollutants in the Northeast include ground-level ozone, acids, and nitrogen compounds.
Ozone  Ground-level ozone can damage plant tissue and decrease photosynthesis. Studies suggest that ozone damage can off set CO2-induced gains in productivity and make trees more vulnerable to other stresses (e.g., McLaughlin et al. 2007). Ozone levels, which are already high in the Northeast, may increase with climate change as plants produce more volatile organic compounds, which then react with nitrogen oxides to produce ozone.

Acid Deposition  Acid deposition already occurs across the Northeast and may increase, especially in high elevation forests, if climate change produces more cloud cover and precipitation. Acidic deposition can impair nutrient availability, reduce reproductive success and frost hardiness, cause physical damage to leaf surfaces, and increase susceptibility to decline.
Nitrogen Deposition  Nitrogen is an essential nutrient, but too much nitrogen can mobilize acids and damage forests. Just what the potential impacts of elevated nitrogen deposition in a changing climate will be remain unclear. Some research suggests that nitrogen deposition could help off set natural nitrogen limitations that will persist in the future. Other studies suggest that these limitations will not be important because rising CO2 may allow increased plant nitrogen uptake and increased nitrogen-use efficiency.
p. 25

Leaching of Nitrogen from Soils  Nitrogen is a basic element that is fundamental to 
the growth of plants. In the Northeast, nitrogen limits forest growth under most 
conditions. Too much nitrogen, however, can have detrimental effects on soil, trees,
and surface waters. Taken together, nitrogen pollution and climate-induced changes in nitrogen cycling have the potential to cause profound shifts in nitrogen dynamics of Northeast forests. Evidence from both empirical studies and simulation modeling suggests that both the faster organic matter decomposition in warmer soils and the more frequent soil freezing events associated with reduced snow coverage can accelerate nitrogen losses from Northeast forests. One way this may happen is by effects on the process of “nitrification”, or the production of nitrate by soil microbes. Once nitrogen is converted to nitrate, it is subject to leaching from soils to surface waters.  This acidifies the soil and enriches the receiving surface waters in streams and lakes. Several soil-warming experiments across the region showed a general increase in nitrification of up to 50 percent with increasing temperature (Rustad et al. 2001). Soil freeze events, which are projected to become more common with less snow coverage, have also been linked to increases soil nitrate leaching (Fitzhugh et al. 2001).  This process can result in spring pulses of nitrate in stream water (Likens and Bormann 1995).
Leaching of Base Cations from Soils  Base cations, particularly calcium and magnesium, are important nutrients that help buf er acidic inputs and support forest growth.  The supply of soil calcium is particularly important in northeastern North America because acidic deposition can deplete exchangeable soil calcium and other base cations from forest soils (Fernandez et al. 2003). Climate warming and increased rainfall has the potential to accelerate the rate of base cation loss from soils. Warming-induced longer growing seasons, especially combined with higher growth rates and the potential shift from conifers to hardwoods, may increase the annual calcium and magnesium uptake by forest vegetation.  The increasing amount and intensity of precipitation plus the potential increases in the infiltration of water into the soil in winter may result in increasing rates of soil leaching and the cumulative loss of soil calcium and magnesium.  Model results indicate that increases in base cation leaching are linked with elevated nitrate leaching (Campbell et al. 2009).
Plant Uptake of Nutrients and Water by Roots  Trees have extensive networks of fine roots which provide a large surface area for water and nutrient exchange with the soil. Many symbiotic fungi, including many common woodland mushrooms, are associated with roots. Because of their central role in water and nutrient cycling, fine roots and their associated fungi will play a pivotal role in determining how forests respond to climate change. Evidence from several experimental manipulations suggests that climate change will alter the dynamics of fine roots (Arft et al. 1999, Burton et al. 1998).  Palatova (2002), for example, showed that a 60 percent reduction in precipitation plus the addition of nitrogen, at the rate of 89 lbs of nitrogen per acre per year (100 
kg nitrogen per hectare per year), resulted in a 30 percent decline in fine root biomass after 2 years of treatment in a Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris L.) stand. An experiment at Hubbard Brook suggested that soil freezing associated with reduced winter snow cover can kill fine roots (Tierney et al. 2001). Decreased growth and increased mortality of fine roots can reduce nutrient uptake and cause elevated leaching of nitrogen and phosphorous to surface waters (Fitzhugh et al. 2001).
p. 33

Armillaria is a common root and tree butt pathogen. It is currently widespread in eastern deciduous forests. Typically, it is a secondary pathogen, killing only weakened or stressed hosts.  As such it contributes to structural diversity, provides habitat for wildlife and microbes, and aids in the recycling of nutrients. Since Armillaria is already well established across the Northeast, the effects of climate change on its further dispersal are of minor interest. What is of concern is 
how it will respond as forest trees are stressed by climate.
p. 38

The IPCC identified the importance of reducing other environmental threats as a way of adapting to the complex issue of climate change. These other threats include habitat fragmentation or loss, pollution (including acid deposition and nitrogen enrichment), overexploitation of natural resources, and the introduction of alien species (Fischlin et al. 2007).  Reducing these other stresses may increase the ability of forest (and other) ecosystems to tolerate climate change (Julius and West 2007).
[Despite their admission that ozone and the nitrogen cascade are stressors in forests, not too surprisingly, I think this report grotesquely underestimates the effects of both.  But wait, my favorite part is coming up, which will give a taste of just how unrealistic foresters are...We can save the forests from climate change...by burning trees!!]

p. 37

Mitigation III: Replace Fossil Fuels with “Smart” Biomass

Sustainably managed forests can supply woody biomass for energy production. Most scientists agree that the displacement of fossil fuel by wood from existing harvests is likely to result in a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, provided that the wood is harvested sustainably and used in efficient applications such as community-scale combined heat and power biomass energy systems. Wood biomass projects can provide additional income to forest landowners and may prevent or defer the conversion of forests to other land uses and thereby prevent the emissions associated with forest conversion. However, the carbon benefits from biomass energy production are not guaranteed, and will only be secured if the forest management is sustainable and energy generation is efficient.

Carbon benefits not guaranteed...only if forest management is sustainable???  These are ludicrous suppositions, but never mind...

Once I got down to rolling hills I was thrilled to find a fantastic abandoned farmhouse to rival the beauty I saw in Virginia.  It is situated next to a pretty pond.  I pulled off onto the shoulder and hopped out to take pictures, quickly before anyone might accost me for trespassing - but a noise above distracted me.  A kingfisher was scolding me furiously from his perch on the line that stretches parallel to the road, above the water.
He looks like he has a bad case of bedhead.
Several times he swept over the water, complaining loudly all the way across to the opposite shore, and back again, even diving a couple of times.  It's only the second time in my life I've ever seen a kingfisher, so it was kind of exciting, even though he made it clear he resented my intrusion.
Finally I turned back to the house, which is surrounded by trees that look more or less like this one.
It has been neglected so long that the siding has lost any vestige of paint or stain.
This big old tree has dead branches and fungus growing from the trunk.
Whereas this dead tree has no branches at all.
Most of it is still lying on the ground where it fell.
The sun glinted off the metal roofing.
The porch was too rickety for me to get very close.
I was afraid the entire edifice would come crashing down.
The leaves on the trees are blighted.
Based on the dimensions of the hearth and the construction, this house likely dates from the very early years of the 19th or even 18th century.  I suspect the windows are replacements.
I didn't dare go in, so the interior pictures are from peeking through a broken pane.
This inside wall was probably originally an exterior wall, and the wing behind it a later addition, because it's made of huge boards.
I've seen many old houses growing up in Ipswich, but never built quite so sturdily.
Underneath the clapboards are solid boards.
Where the clapboards have disintegrated, you can see the clay or mud lathing between the boards, used as mortar.
Some are almost two feet wide, and at least two inches thick.
Again I have to wonder why a house so lovingly built was left to crumble.  Once 60% of Americans were farmers, and now that number is more like 2% - average age, 60 years.  This is the legacy of the Great Depression, when industrial agriculture and monoculture destroyed the family farm.
One of the two old barns lists to the side behind a newer shelter which is also unused.
In this shot from the side, where most of the clapboards have fallen off the first story, the wide boards are intact.  You won't find anything like that available in a lumberyard today.  Those days were over long ago.
Another remnant of an old tree.  This is why foresters can continue to claim forests are healthy.  They keep sending up new growth - of course!  And it obscures the loss of the ancients, which aren't being replaced.
I'm still staying with my parents on Cape Cod.  Being avid gardeners both, Doc & Nana have been perplexed that their colorful impatiens appear to be mysteriously shrinking before their eyes.
Then Nana heard on the radio that a fungus has begun attacking impatiens everywhere around the country, which naturally is of interest, since as Ozonists and Ozonistas know, fungus (and insects, and disease) just love to feast on plants that have been damaged by exposure to air pollution.  So I googled it.  Here's a news story - typical of many that popped up - by a gardening columnist from Boston, and pictures of a remote scenic overlook carved from a state park down a long, dirt road.

The number one challenge I seem to face each summer is fungus on many of my perennials, vegetables and believe it or not, this year my impatiens.  The most common fungus we all face is powdery mildew.
Powdery mildews, as the name implies, often appear as a superficial white or gray powdery growth of fungus over the surface of leaves, stems, flowers, or fruit of affected plants.  These patches of mildew may enlarge until they cover the entire leaf on one or both sides.

Although it usually is not a fatal disease, powdery mildew may hasten plant defoliation and fall dormancy, and the infected plant may become extremely unsightly.  Powdery mildew seems to always affect my vegetable garden.
...How about your impatiens, notice anything different this year?  Did you lose any and wonder why?  It wasn’t you, it’s a new disease downy mildew.

Impatiens downy mildew was diagnosed on impatiens (walleriana) in landscapes in Massachusetts for the first time in 2011 and has been diagnosed again in 2012.  All impatiens walleriana are susceptible. Fortunately, it is not effecting New Guinea or Sun Scape varieties.
Symptoms vary from off color foliage (slight yellowing) and slight wilting and curling down of foliage to nearly total leaf loss.  If the disease continues to progress, eventually the leaves and flowers will drop, resulting in bare stems with only a few tiny, yellow leaves remaining.

Downy mildew can be spread long distances by wind currents, water splash (overhead irrigation included) or by the movement of infected plants.  Infected plants should be pulled, roots, soil and all, bagged and disposed of. The area should not be replanted with susceptible impatiens species.
Fungicide treatments are not recommended for plants in the landscape since they are not always effective at eliminating the disease.
Allowing infected plants to remain in the landscape may allow the pathogen to overwinter as resting structures (called oospores), which may infect impatiens planted next year or longer.

In other words, there's nothing to be done to stop the spread!
By coincidence, Scientific American has an intriguing article, "Invasive Fungi Wreak Havoc on Species Worldwide" that is actually extraordinary and probably horrendously overlooked, like ozone.  It needs to be considered in light of the research about "Hissing Trees" being consumed by fungi and releasing methane, linked to in an earlier post, which is said to be ubiquitous in forests around the globe.  Could this have anything to do with the "Acidification of Earth"?
"I've never seen anything like this in wild snakes before," Allender says. "Nor has anyone else. In almost all organisms, fungi are opportunistic pathogens that attack compromised immune systems. These were otherwise healthy snakes," however, he says. Already suffering from diminishing numbers, the snake is a candidate for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's threatened species list.
Unfortunately, the rattlesnakes are only the latest example of species falling prey to fungal attack in a troubling global trend noted by public health officials, zoologists and conservationists. Fungi have afflicted species as varied as amphibians, bats, arabica coffee, mangrove crabs, wheat, coral, bees, oak trees, sea turtles and even humans. (For instance, infectious meningitis is caused by a fungus.)
The most well-documented example is the lethal amphibian fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, commonly known as chytrid. Originally reported in 1997, chytridiomycosis has infected more than 500 species of frogs and salamanders on all continents where amphibians are found, and launched half of all amphibian species into evolutionary decline. Many other species affected by fungal disease face imminent extinction, such as the European crayfish.
To establish whether the data scientists were gathering really did point to a dramatic shift in a deadly trend affecting numerous species, Matthew Fisher, a reader in fungal disease epidemiology at Imperial College London, and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of past studies available on Web of Science, an online citation index provided by Thomson Reuters, ProMED (the Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases) and HealthMap, which monitors disease outbreaks in plant and animal hosts. Their findings revealed that fungi and funguslike pathogens (oomycetes) account for 65 percent of the pathogen-driven species loss in the past half century.

Perhaps it is unsurprising in a global economy, but human activity such as international trade and military operations have intensified the dispersal of fungal pathogens, delivering new foes to unprotected victims and introducing new evolutionary opportunities to previously harmless fungus species.
Long thought to reproduce asexually through mitosis, where each offspring is the identical clone of its parent, scientists have discovered fungi can also reproduce sexually, via meiosis. By nimbly changing their reproductive strategy in response to new environmental conditions, fungi transfer genetic advantages from both parents—just like humans do—giving their offspring a better shot at survival. They also readily hybridize (interbreed between different species), outcross (selectively breed with individuals of different strains within a species) and recombine (exchange genetic material during cell division).
Zymoseptoria pseudotritici, a pathogenic fungus that damages wheat crops, is a good example. This recent hybrid resulted directly from the coupling of two genetically distinct, nonpathogenic fungi that had been brought into contact through human trade and agricultural practices. The offspring, unlike its parents, is a killer.
"If there is some new environmental condition in which they can't thrive, some fungi change their reproductive strategy and they reproduce sexually. Fungal sex is far more common than we ever thought. In terms of sheer numbers, they're among the most successful organisms on the planet," Fisher says.
One of the most sinister weapons in fungi's survival arsenal is its ability to hide in any life-form that is being shipped from one country to another—and then to wait out poor conditions. For instance, Phytophthora ramorum, the funguslike oomycete that has caused the die-off of native oak trees in California and Oregon in the past decade, probably hitched a ride on a non-susceptible host in Asia, mostly likely a rhododendron, through the ornamental plant trade.
"There were no warning bells for this disease," says Matteo Garbelotto, extension specialist at the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California, Berkeley. Once the fungus arrived on the California coast, the warm weather and intermittent rainfall enabled it to move easily among hosts. "What we think happened was the pathogen moved from the rhododendron to the California bay laurel, where it can lay dormant for years. There is no direct oak-to-oak transmission," Garbelotto says.
When environmental conditions aren't perfect, phytopthora bides its time. "In dry years, they don't propagate," Garbelotto says. "Phytophthora is a zoospore, which means it goes through a swimming phase during its life cycle. If it's dry or the temperature is low, there is no outbreak. But when the conditions are right, an epidemic can go from nonexistent to affecting innumerable trees within a few weeks."
Not all fungi are bad—far from it. Without fungi we wouldn't have Penicillium which ages blue cheese, rots oranges and from which the antibiotic drug penicillin was extracted. "Without fungi, life on Earth would look very different," Fisher adds. "Forests themselves depend on fungi for their survival." Mycorrhizal, or symbiont fungi, have evolved mutualistically with plant-root vascular systems. They transfer nitrogen and phosphorus from the soil to the plant roots through these associations.
Fungi are among evolution's most successful organisms. Yet it took only a few generations for some of nature's most awe-inspiring assets to become some of its most fearsome liabilities for other species on the planet.

Why???  Remember the earlier sentence:

In almost all organisms, fungi are opportunistic pathogens that attack compromised immune systems.

That last sentence seems to beg the question  - WHAT new influence is compromising immune systems of "species worldwide", encouraging opportunistic fungal attacks?  Is it just because they are invasive, non-native - as presented in the article?  But what of the Armillaria mentioned in the Forest Service Report...the hissing trees from the Yale study...and the downy mildew decimating impatiens??
The prolific author at Freethought Police writes many poems, so frequently that I worry a little about how he manages the swirl of creativity that must be churning so dynamically in his psyche.  Here's a recent one I especially like, titled,

We'll Make Amends in the Afterlife 

I can tell everything’s gone wrong,

and that’s why I’m going to drive into the desert

and take my shadows with me

let them find their way into canyons and cliffs

and I’ll leave them there forever,

I’ll bring you back my desert flower mind

and I’ll bloom for you outside of space and time,

but for now I need to just drive

alone on the arterial haste of the toxic endeavor

we have sworn a thousand times to love but never

loved anything but the ruin, fear, and the waste

we missed all the intricacies of nature

for a quick taste of colors that eat the eye like autumn

and the leaves of the mind fall and we haven’t caught them,

we’ve raked them into trenches and the blaze clutches

greedily at the night, indifferent and ominous but pacific,

suggestions weaving their intrinsic soul magic though I could, but won’t

get more specific.

Michele in Quebec shared this video with me, which has some delightful shots of birds, insects and fox. Oh, those quirky adorable English!  They think they can prepare for peak oil using novel, holistic gardening techniques.  It's the same path Guy McPherson has chosen.  You can watch his latest presentation replete with the gloomiest of climate predictions followed by his paradoxically delusional hopeful solutions for survival and transcending collapse.  My favorite part is at the very end when he's asked whether he anticipates starving hordes to invade his little fertile paradise when the grid goes down.  He shrugs his shoulders fatalistically and says he really expects most people sheeple will just continue staring at their blank teevee screens, waiting for the water to be turned back on.  (Maybe I'm being unfair to sheep.)

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