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BLOG 9-1, View from the Helicopter_small.jpgBLOG 9-4, Kristi, Nita and Alia_small.jpgMicroscopeBack in the helo, and back into the mountains for another soil sampling siege – I’m just about convinced that I am James Bond. Antarctica New Zealand has provided some impressive helicopter logistics, orchestrated by Barry, the operations scheduler at Scott Base to get us to all the 75 sampling sites. It is most appreciated.

This time, it was team Blonde, not team Bond. And Kristi and I were specifically on an Invertebrate hunt, as we hiked back to main camp.

Kristi Bennet is a Masters student from the University of Waikato studying population genetics of springtails in the McMurdo Dry Valleys. Springtails are the largest living terrestrial organism in Antarctica, measuring in at a whopping 1-3mm. The only other visible living invertebrates are Mites. These are the ‘lions and tigers’ of Antarctica, top of the food chain - the mega fauna! Springtails are found worldwide and are the world's most abundant soil arthropod. They have a long evolutionary history and are one of the first arthropods that show up in the fossil record. There are 3 species found in the Dry Valleys, Antarcticinella monoculata, Neocryptopygus nivicolus and Gompheocephalous hodgsoni. During this expedition Antarcticinella monoculata was found, for the first time since the 1960s. The current hypothesis for their distribution is that they are remnants from Gondwanaland and have survived the once warmer continent becoming a polar ice cap.

Hunting for Springtails and Mites is a fine art. They have very particular places they like to hang out. They are found on the mountain peaks, in areas with some water, where snow naturally accumulates. They like to live under flat black rocks, sheltered from the harsh winds by larger boulders, on north facing slopes, with good school zoning and close to the shops…. For us, it means spending lots of time on our hands and knees turning over rocks. So I am a glaciologist by trade, and until this point the field groups had had very little luck in finding any mites or springtails. It was when I finally turned over a rock to see tiny red mites scuttling across the underside of the rock, that I truly understood the microbiologists passion and yelled at Kristi “oh oh oh, I've found some mites!!!”.

Next we had to collect the mites. A specially designed aspirator was used. They are sucked up through a tube, and to prevent eating them, they are caught on a filter and fall into a plastic vile. Mites and springtails are also found in the soil samples. To separate them from the soil, in the lab the soil is mixed with a sugar solution and any organic matter, including the mites and springtails floats out. They are then scooped out, preserved in ethanol and taken back to New Zealand for genetic analysis.

By the end of the field time, the total count of springtails found was approximately 100, and 300 mites were also collected. Needless to say, Kristi was pretty happy with the count, and will be spending time in the lab, studying the genetics of these springtails.

Nita Smith.

The view from the helicopter
Centre: Kristi, Nita and Alia
Bottom: Kristi looking at the Springtails under the microscope

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Camp lifePrime Minister takes first sample for AGArnzTABS team with the Prime MinisterLog book record: “Quiet day, but a bloke called John popped in for a cuppa”

After three big field days with people scampering all over the landscape: climbing peaks, navigating ridges, rock hoping granite and weaving through dolerite boulder fields we were all due a rest day. With the whole team back at Main Camp, we had our ear to the radio awaiting news from the helicopter that Prime Minister John Key was on his way to our camp for a visit.

Camp days consist of a variety of occupations. Coffee is drunk, soil samples are processed, bread is baked, yoga is done, water is collected, scones are baked and the crew generally relaxes and gears up for the next onslaught of sampling across the mountains. With 14 people in the one communal tent, the art of dancing around each other in coordinated chaos is finely tuned. 

“K020. K020. This is India Delta Echo. Do you copy?”

“India Delta Echo, this is K020. Go ahead”

“K020 we are flying in over Bull Pass, we will be on the ground in 4 minutes. Over”

“Copy that India Delta Echo. The wind here is 5knots from the west. See you in 4 minutes”

Our radio call sign is K020, and India Delta Echo is the name of Helicopter. Out of the helicopter climbed Lou Sanson, the CEO of Antarctica New Zealand, followed by Prime Minister John Key and his wife Bronagh for a short visit to camp.

With the help of Professor Craig Cary, the Prime Minister took the first biodiversity sample for the new Antarctic Genetic Archive (AGAr), numbered MDV 0001.  

AGAr, is a tool to link all biodiversity research being conducted in Antarctica, by housing a DNA archive. Once collected, this will enable researchers from all countries to gain access to valuable DNA samples without the necessity of going to the remote locations. This enhances biodiversity research worldwide by making data collection more efficient, and reducing the overall environmental impact on the pristine and fragile Antarctic environment. This continent scale biodiversity archive will be the first of its kind in the world. The archive has the capacity to hold 1 million DNA samples and can be contributed to by any scientists working in Antarctica. Technology now allows scientists to collect, extract and store DNA very efficiently. Once established, the archive will be available to the research community across the world. 

Then on for a cuppa, and some fresh cinnamon pinwheel scones. I had been perfecting the art of the camp scone – and the Prime Minister seemed to like them.

Nita Smith.

Busy camp life
Centre: Prime Minister John Key takes the first sample for AGAr
Bottom: The nzTABS team with the Prime Minister

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SODAR and RASS equipmentAtmospheric research equipmentKiteThe most obvious thing when we arrived at Camp Curry (sub camp 2), apart from the delicious smell of curry, was the array of interesting and alien looking gadgets along the lakeshore. A day spent with Peyman Zawar-Reza and Marwan Katurji, both lecturers at the Centre for Atmospheric Research at the University of Canterbury, and I’ve now got a handle of what they all do.

But firstly….. the Dry Valleys are dry! Antarctica is the driest continent on earth, which ironically is 98% covered in ice. The Dry Valleys receive around 50mm of precipitation per year at the valley mouths and almost nothing at the head of the valleys. Why? Because of the rain shadow effect from the Transantarctic mountains. Very simplistically the weather in the Dry Valleys is as follows: In the summer under 24hour sun, when there is regionally calm weather, the winds are driven by thermal circulations which causes up valley winds during the day. During the few hours when the low sun casts shadow into the valleys, the temperature drops a few degrees and there is a weak down valley wind. The major weather comes from the outside, in summer low-pressure systems bring strong winds into the valley, and if dense with moisture, snow will fall. In the winter when the circumpolar vortex strengthens, low-pressure systems cause hurricane strength warm foehn winds to funnel down into the valleys. These are the strong winds that pick up sand and blast and erode the rocks causing sculpted ventifacts. 

To understand the biocomplexity of the Dry Valleys ecosystems, it is critical to understand the microclimate. Temperature and water are critical for life. I know that I require water and warmth to live in the Dry Valleys, and a few cinnamon scones! So what causes surface temperature to rise above freezing? And what causes precipitation? 

Marwan and Peyman are also looking at finer scale climate questions. They are interested in the atmosphere very close to the surface - below 500m. Specifically wind interaction with topography, turbulence, waves, and the forcings behind them. The Dry Valleys represent a simplified system with no vegetation, which is ideal for theory and hypothesis testing.

They have some serious gadgets, 700 kilos of gadgets in fact. There is the SODAR (sound detection and ranging), and a RASS (radio acoustic sounding system), a surface automatic weather station, and a kite. The SODAR and RASS instruments measure wind speed, wind direction and temperature in a vertical profile from the ground up to 500m every 10 minutes.

But the most fun, was flying the kite. A beautiful bright yellow and red 4m kite is attached to a hand winch and flown with instruments attached to validating the temperature profiles taken by the RASS up to 300m. It is labour intensive but necessary for checking the remote sensing gear. Kites work better than weather balloons in windy environments, such as the Dry Valleys. 

All in all, after a hospitable night at sub camp 2, a jolly good day eating curry, flying kites and playing with gadgets! Back to Main Camp tomorrow.

Nita Smith.

Peyman and Marwan and the SODAR and RASS equipment
Centre: Peyman and Marwan working on their Atmospheric research equipment
Bottom: Flying the kite with temperature sensor attached to validate the SODAR RASS measurements

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Flying by Helo to the Olympus RangeNita and SteveWind sculpted Granite bouldersSteve framed Destination: Olympus Range! It sounds so grand. And oh how it was. As there were helicopter movements in the area, we were dropped at the top of the Olympus Range at sampling routes to follow down to the Valley floor. It’s amazing how 5 minutes by helicopter can take days to cover on foot. Steve Pointing, a Professor of Ecosystem Ecology from the Earth and Ocean Sciences Research Institute at AUT and I were dropped off by helo at 1700m elevation on the crest of the mountains. A vista of naked mountains and perfectly sculpted glaciers were matched with distant icebergs in the frozen white Ross Sea. All under a calm and cloudless blue sky. One of the difficult things to judge in Antarctica is the distance. The atmosphere is so crisp and the scenery so big, that without trees for scale judging distance is almost impossible. More than likely if something looks 1km away, it is probably 10km away. But with a trusty GPS, you can tell just how close or distant it is to the next sampling location.

We trotted our way down through ancient mountain landscapes, most likely where know one had ever trodden before. As we travelled, we crossed an assortment of distinct and beautiful landscapes: weathered slabs of granite bedrock, desert pavements of dolerite, sandy polygons, and dreaded chunky boulder fields. 

So how do we take a sample? Well, firstly we hiked by GPS to the specific location – a point chosen to be an indicator of a specific geology, aspect, slope, elevation and temperature. The first sampling task requires doing just what you feel like after hiking kilometers of rough terrain. Lie down and spend 10 minutes hunting beneath rocks for springtails and mites, the only VISIBLE invertebrates that live in Antarctica, which are mere millimeters in size. Then soil samples are taken which are analysed in the lab. Lastly a 10m transect is laid out and any lichens, mosses or cyanobacteria that are seen are noted down. In some locations there is a lot of life to be found. Where we were, we saw not one springtail, mite, moss, lichen, or any sign of life. I can sympathise with Scott – these valleys do appear to be void of life. However what will be seen in the lab will show another story.

As we hiked and sampled, our packs grew increasingly heavy with samples of soil. Our packs lost weight as we drank our water, but gained weight with bottles of pee. In Antarctica nothing in left in the field, including human waste. As a woman, peeing into a bottle is something of an art!  With the aid of a FUD, a female urinary director, hey presto, peeing is not a problem. Go on, Google it, I’m not going into any more detail here…..

10 hours of walking later, we arrived into sub camp 2, otherwise known as Camp Curry, to the warm welcome of Marwan and Peyman and a big pot of delicious hot steaming curry. Situated on the side of Lake Vida in the center of a perfect polygon, the site of 3 yellow tents and an array of atmospheric gadgets was a welcome site!  

Nita Smith.

Flying by Helo to the Olympus Range to start our soil sampling
Centre: Nita and Steve ready for action at the top of Olympus Range, wind sculptured granite boulders
Bottom: Steve framed through a wind hollowed granite boulder

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Main CampTrango tentUpper Victoria GlacierFull steam ahead! Tents up, camp kitchen assembled, field laboratory unpacked and assembled!  From here our primary goal is to trek to the 75 chosen GPS sites, take soil samples, look for invertebrates and survey a vegetation transect. From here the samples need to return to the main camp where a field laboratory has been set up, for initial tests before being package up at returned to the lab in New Zealand.

Today Glen and Kurt, have been on a mission to figure out a complex plan for the most efficient way to get 16 people to 75 random sampling locations in a valley with an area of around 300km2! Tricky task! In order to physically get to all the 75 sampling sites, 3 sub camps have been set up, our homes away from home, the main camp. 75 sites, 16 people and two weeks. 

Glen Stitchbury, a Geographic Information Systems specialist from the University of Waikato has used a number of satellite images to figure out where we need to go. By combining information such as elevation, slope, surface temperature, geomorphology and slope aspect, the entire valley has been divided into 1241 different polygons or tiles. Based on the previous years sampling a computer model has been created to predict the biological taxa that should be found within each tile. Luckily we DO NOT have to sample all 1241 tiles. Instead 75 random tiles have been chosen.

Kurt Joy, a phD candidate at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury is an expert on glacial geomorphology. While Antarctica itself is alien enough to most, the Dry Valleys are a rare oddity in a continent predominantly covered in ice. What is most amazing is standing outside listening while Kurt gives me the “in a nutshell” geological history of this valley, is that there is nothing to hide the history. There are no trees to obscure the landscape, in fact hopefully we will get to see the ‘forests’ of Antarctica in a few days, in the form of tiny mosses and lichens. We see chocolate brown layers of Ferrar Dolerite injected into the creamy Beacon Sandstone, we see a present day glacier terminating up the valley as if carved off perfectly by a giant cake icing knife. Lake Vida used to be 200m deeper at the Last Glacial Maximum 15,000 years ago. It has left terraces perched high on the valley sides, and ancient glaciers have left lateral moraines even higher up the valley sides. This valley is the closest analogy to Mars, with ventifacts – wind sculpted silky black dolerite, frost heave polygons and desert pavements with the wind winnowing out the finer sediments.

Between Glen and Kurt, the two of them have spent the afternoon pouring over the maps, masterminding ways to optimize sampling routes, helicopter drop offs, and who will be located at each subcamp. Snippets of conversation escape from back of the tent amongst the piles of maps, “Ok that’s an easy one, 7km return”,  “Ohhh, that ones a destroyer, look at that profile, bet the view is worth all the pain though”…..

Nita Smith.

The main camp
Centre: Trango tent, my home away from home
Bottom: The view from my tent, Upper Victoria Glacier

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Mt Erebus from the HelicopterDry ValleysWright Valley“You will be walking in places that no one has ever walked before.” After introductions with the whole crew of 16 people, Professor Craig Cary started to outline our field expedition. At this point, I started to get really excited. I can’t quiet believe that I am going to be spending two weeks stomping around the Victoria Valley, with such a diverse, passionate and interesting assortment of scientists.

But first we have to get there.  With a team of 16, one main camp and 3 sub camps, this is an expedition with a huge amount of logistics to manage, and all under the great leadership of Craig Cary. It was all hands on deck. We had 5 helicopter loads to get 16 people, camping equipment, food and science equipment to the field. This requires some serious excel spreadsheet magic. The weights of all equipment must be known, and the loading of helicopters is a small art, especially when sling loads are involved. It was organized chaos in the Hillary Field Centre, with production lines of crew testing all the tents, making up sleep kits, assembling science equipment, and the spirits and banter were high. It is going to be a fun and entertaining trip. The map of the Victoria Valley showing the sample sites was bought out and pored over. 75 sample sites!

Then there is nothing more than to ‘Hurry up and wait’. That’s the Antarctic way. With weather holding the upper hand, there is nothing more than to do a clear skies dance, cross your fingers and wait, as the helicopter cannot fly otherwise. The weather cleared around lunch time and helo ops went into full swing. The first pax flight went in at noon, followed by a sling load of gear, and my flight finally took off at 9pm. 45 minutes of vast, untouched beauty!  

The crew who had flown in earlier had kindly put up my tent. A quick cuppa, and I fell into bed, asleep before my head even hit the pillow. Through some kind of miracle I didn’t even hear the last helicopter load land. Must be a pretty soundproof nylon tent, considering the heli pad was less than 50m away.

Nite Smith.

View of Mt Erebus from the Helicopter
Centre: Dry Valleys from McMurdo Sound
Bottom: Lower Wright Valley on our flight to the Vicotira Valley


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Mt ErebusPressure RidgesWeddel SealsScott Base has been described many ways: an oversized backpackers, an institutionalised ski lodge, but for me the first word that comes to mind is ‘green’. Chelsea Cucumber Green to be exact. A small assortment of green square Lego style blocks joined together by green corridors on an otherwise white, blue and grey moonscape. To me Scott Base is one of my homes, as I lived there for the past two summer seasons working on the base. It’s humming with activity and run by Antarctica New Zealand who provide logistical support for the scientists doing field research. Numbers fluctuate daily as people come and go, but usually there are around 60 people on base, providing a colorful collision of productivity. Between working hard, enjoying the surroundings by foot or ski, and the odd dress up party there is always something going on. Check out Antarctica New Zealand’s webcam from Scott Base.

We arrived on base to a pleasant 18 degrees, shed our many layers in the boot room and were led into the maze which is Scott Base for a tour. The base staff is made up of chefs, engineers, mechanics, domestics, builders, field trainers and science and communications technicians. Over the winter a skeleton crew of staff remain to keep the base ticking over. We locate ourselves a bunk in Q hut and head into the Tatty Flag (the Scott Base bar) for a beer. From an architectural point of view Scott Base is fascinating, it is like being inside a gigantic multi-room industrial fridge, only reversed to keep the warmth in. It is constructed from polystyrene sandwich board, and is kept at a pleasant 18 degrees. Power is generated by 3 large wind turbines, which also supply excess energy to McMurdo station on windy days. Scott Base also houses two backup diesel generators. Desalination is used to create fresh water that removes salt. Firstly the -1.8 degree seawater is warmed up and then passes through the reverse osmosis plant. Wastewater is treated by an ozone treatment plant, and all rubbish, food waste and solid human waste is shipped back to NZ to be landfilled.

The view from Scott Base is priceless; smoking Mt Erebus dominates to the north. To the south, Scott Base is situated on prime sea-front real estate, overlooking the frozen ocean. Like any ocean there is swell and waves, however in Antarctica they are in the form of timeless frozen pressure ridges. Some of the pressure ridges lie unbroken while others are broken and jutting to the sky in shards of frozen waves. Amongst the pressure ridges lie Weddel Seals, basking in the sun, the broken pressure ridges providing access from the inky depths below. Early in the season the pure white of the frozen ocean is scared in red, with the remains of seal after births. Cute baby seals and sleepy mamas lie on the ice.

But before we are unleashed from the safety of Scott Base to the wilds of Antarctica, everyone must do mandatory overnight Field Training. For some of our group it is their first taste of Antarctic camping, a chance to learn the tricks and tips to live safely and harmoniously in the field. 

Nita Smith. 

Mt Erebus from Scott Base
Centre: Pressure rides
Bottom: Weddel Seals outside Scott Base

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First steps  Herc InteriorRoss IslandIt takes your breath away, both literally and figuratively when you step off the plane and onto ‘The Ice’. Previously I have flown south in a C17 Globemaster airplane, which is like being in the guts of a thundering bull elephant taking 5 hours to fly from Christchurch to the Ice. Powered by 4 turbofan engines, C17’s are pure brute force, a grey military machine capable of encapsulating 40ft shipping containers, helicopters, humans and cargo alike. However this trip south we were destined for the smaller cousin, the ski equipped LC130 Herc. Powered by 4 turboprops, the Herc is less bull elephant, more work horse – maybe an old Clydesdale, with a flight time of 8 hours.

The inside of a Herc is a sight to be seen, all passengers, or pax in military speak, were crammed in, bundled up in their Extreme Cold Weather clothing (ECWs), earmuffs on, deeply absorbed in their laptops and books. ECWs make for cushioning on the makeshift webbing seats, the shell of the plane is plastered in a complex maze of wiring and ducting. There are no internal walls, and only 4 small windows.

We were invited up into the cockpit for a viewing. Ice Bergs swam below in the vast ocean. To the right Cape Adare came into view, which is the most North Eastern point of Victoria Land, East Antarctica. Beyond, the long spine of the Admiralty Mountains stretch into the distance, which are the beginning of the Transantarctic Mountains which span to the Pole. Only the tips of these mountains peak out of the surrounding ice, named Nunataks. Outlet glaciers larger than you can possibly imagine spill down through the mountains to the sea sourced from the vast plateau of ice that makes up East Antarctic Ice Sheet.

We land at Pegasus, the Ice Shelf runway. It’s too late in the season to use the sea ice runway, which is rapidly turning to open ocean! The Ross Ice Shelf is a glacial extension of the ice that flows down off the plateau. The ice shelf becomes unhinged from the bedrock, and begins to float over the ocean. The Ross Ice Shelf is the worlds largest ice shelf, approximately the size of France and is several hundred meters thick. A runway is groomed on the ice and the hustle and bustle of a busy air field greats us…… and the vista!  Wow… Mt Erebus! What a prominent and spectacular volcano, cloaked in glaciers and wistfully smoking away. This mountain at 3794m high, the center piece of Ross Island is home to Scott Base (NZ) and McMurdo Station (USA), Scott and Shackleton’s historic huts at Cape Evans and Cape Royds, half a million Adelie Penguins, and approximately 1200 Emperor Penguins.

The journey from Pegasus to Scott Base is unusually eventful! The temperatures have been unusually warm, around freezing for a number of days, and the ice road has turned to bog. When you are travelling in 30 ton ‘Ivan’ the Terra Bus, bog is NOT good. The only vehicle that could pass over the bog was the tracked Challengers. So, behind the Challenger a Kevlar sled was attached, Ivan was driven onto the sled, and we were towed across the bog! Tired from a big day’s travel I was happy to fall into bed at Scott Base.

Nita Smith.

Our first steps on the ice.
Centre:  Inside the Herc.
Bottom: Our first view of Ross Island from the Herc.

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 Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Blog 1 - field team.jpgThumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Blog 1 - Charlie Lee in the Dry Valleys.jpgThumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Blog 1 - Dry Valleys small.jpgWhen Scott of the Antarctic ventured into the otherworldly Dry Valleys in 1903, he famously dubbed them “Valleys of the Dead”. Over 100 years later, modern science is proving Scott wrong, showing a surprising abundance and diversity of microbial life.

My name is Nita Smith, and I am joining a group of scientists lead by Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey (nzTABS). We are heading to the Victoria Valley, which is a northern valley in the Southern Victoria Land, Dry Valleys for three weeks of field research. I am a freelance science communicator with a background in Antarctic glaciology and geomorphology. I am really looking forward to joining this group of primarily biologists in the wilds of Antarctica, and learning a thing or two about LIFE.

The nzTABS mission is focusing on examining the biocomplexity of terrestrial ecosystems living in the extreme environments of the Ross Dependency, Antarctica, and building a model to link biodiversity with landscape, and environmental factors.  Antarctic terrestrial research is currently going through major changes. Original understanding of these extreme environments is that they are poor in nutrients with small and simple biology, which are ancient and slow growing. New modern research techniques are finding a different story!  There are biological systems supposedly thousands of years old, now carbon dated to less than 100 years, and soils once thought lifeless are found to be supporting microbial life at levels approaching those of temperate areas.

The project’s first major field season was in the summer of 2008/09, when a team of 18 scientists completed one of the largest soil sampling surveys in Antarctica, in the Miers, Marshall and Garwood Valleys which are the southern most dry Valleys. The sampling area covered 200km2, from sea level to 1200m, including steep sided valleys covered in gravel, sand, boulders with glaciers, melt streams and lakes. Additional scientific projects were undertaken, improving the understanding of the landscape, climate and how organisms respond to environmental changes.

The last four seasons has seen a continuation of sampling in the Dry Valleys and the creation of a model predicting the diversity and abundance of life that is found in different environments. This season we are continuing to sample in order to validate the model.

I’m excited to be with such a diverse group of scientists from around the world, and from many areas of study, including biologists, chemists, geomorphologists, climatologists and GIS specialists. We will meet them all and hear about their role to play in this multi year, multi discipline project. 

Nita Smith.

The field team.
Centre: Charlie Lee in the Dry Valleys.
Bottom: The Dry Valleys.

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Nita_J_Smith.jpgMy name is Nita Smith, and I am joining a group of scientists lead by Professor Craig Cary from the University of Waikato as part of the New Zealand Terrestrial Antarctic Biocomplexity Survey (nzTABS). We are heading to the Victoria Valley, which is a northern valley in the Southern Victoria Land, Dry Valleys for three weeks of field research. I am a freelance science communicator with a background in Antarctic glaciology and geomorphology. I am really looking forward to joining this group of primarily biologists in the wilds of Antarctica, and learning a thing or two about LIFE.

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