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The Earthquake Safety & Advice Guide
What are Earthquakes?
An earthquake is a sudden, rapid shaking of the Earth caused by the breaking and shifting of rock beneath the Earth’s surface. Ground shaking from earthquakes can collapse buildings and bridges; disrupt gas, electric, and phone service; and sometimes trigger landslides, avalanches, flash floods, fires, and huge, destructive ocean waves (tsunamis). Learn whether earthquakes are a risk in your area by contacting your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter.
Why Talk about Earthquakes?
For hundreds of millions of years, the forces of plate tectonics have shaped the Earth as the huge plates that form the Earth’s surface move slowly over, under, and past each other. Sometimes the movement is gradual. Where earthquakes have occurred in the past, they will happen again.
No matter where you live or work, you are exposed to natural hazards. Many of these hazards may be known to you, but possibly not well understood. For instance, earthquakes occur without warning and affect everyone in a region within seconds. But the amount of shaking depends on many factors such as magnitude, location, the type of soil under your building, the type of building you’re in, etc. Certainly some parts of the world have more earthquake risk than others, but you may travel to these areas on vacation, for work, or for school.
1. What are the causes of earthquakes?
Earthquakes can be categorized into naturally occurring earthquakes and man-made earthquakes (such as those caused by nuclear explosion). Typically, the earthquakes that we experience are naturally occurring earthquakes and the causes for these earthquakes can also be divided into: 1. tectonic earthquakes, 2. volcanic earthquakes, and 3. impacting earthquakes (such as those caused by the impact of meteorites). Among all these causes, earthquakes are predominantly produced by crustal deformation (tectonic earthquakes), which is caused by plate movement.
Rock layers are stressed by pressures in the Earth. When the stress is stronger than the strength that the rock layer can withstand, the rock layer will move outward (dislocation). Such dislocations release a great deal of energy, producing elastic waves called seismic waves. When seismic waves reach the surface of the Earth, they cause shaking, also known as earthquake.
2. Is there a correlation between a fault and an earthquake?
Surface ruptures are often seen after the occurrence of a huge earthquake. Whether it is the fault that initiates the earthquake or the earthquake that creates the fault is still an open question. However, faults are often found in the places where a huge earthquake releases energy.
3. What are faults?
A fault is a form of disruptive distortion, where both sides of a rock layer are extended with relative movement along the fracture (fault plane). According to the cross-section with respect to the sloping angle, we can divide the rocks into the hanging wall and the footwall. It is not possible to retrieve the actual movement at the time of the formation of the fault; the faults are mainly divided into groups based on their relative movement.
4. What do the terms ‘hypocenter’ & ‘epicenter’ refer to?
(A) Hypocenter: A hypocenter is the point within the Earth where an earthquake rupture starts.
(B) Epicenter: An epicenter is the point at the surface that lies directly above a hypocenter in the Earth.
*This example diagram below shows the position of a hypocenter and an epicenter quake:
5. What are the main types of seismic waves?
Seismic waves can be divided into two groups based on their passage through the Earth’s body.
(1) Body waves: Waves that travel inside the Earth’s interior. According to the wave property these waves can be divided into the following two classes:
(i) P-waves (primary wave, longitudinal or pressure wave): They are similar to sound waves. The particles vibrate along or parallel to the direction of wave propagation. These are the fastest waves.
(ii) S-waves (shear wave, secondary wave, or transverse wave): The particles vibrate perpendicular to the direction of the wave propagation. The vibration shakes horizontally and the velocity of the S-waves is next to that of the P-waves as they pass through the same medium.
Seismic waves can be divided into two groups based on their passage through the Earth’s body.
(2) Surface waves: Waves that travel along the Earth’s surface and the layers near the surface. These waves can generally be divided into the following two classes:
(i) Love waves: The particles vibrate on a horizontal plane and perpendicular to the direction of wave propagation.
(ii) Rayleigh waves: The particles vibrate on a vertical plane and follow a retrograde ellipse.
When the seismic waves pass through the medium, their particle motions are shown as in the diagram below:
6. What is magnitude?
The magnitude of an earthquake is a measured value of the earthquake size. Depending on the energy released, it is a real number with no unit.
7. What is intensity?
The intensity of an earthquake is a measure of the degree of vibration that people can feel on the Earth’s surface, or the degree of damage for an object under vibration.
Today seismic apparatus is able to portray detailed earthquake acceleration, such that the intensity can be classified according to the information on the acceleration.
Scales of the earthquake intensities exist as positive numbers:
8. What is the definition of the observation of strong ground motion?
Based on the earthquake disaster experiences from the past, the cause of earthquake disaster is mainly due to the destruction of buildings by strong ground motion, resulting in the casualties and loss of property. The ground motion, caused by seismic waves, can have different responses under different geological conditions. The observations of these different responses to the ground motion using a strong-motion seismograph can provide better understanding about the characteristics of the strong ground movement and its influence on buildings.
9. What is the effectiveness of the Strong Ground Motion Seismic Network?
The geological conditions in Taiwan are enormously complicated, and the vibration characteristics are also very different in each region. Therefore it is inappropriate to engage in earthquake-resistant construction design by taking select local earthquake frequency spectra and widely utilizing this limited data in other areas with different geological conditions. For instance, Taipei basin is located in a lacustrine deposit basin, piled up with thick and solidifying layers of weak, loose soil. These geological conditions make the basin conducive to produce a magnifying effect during certain seismic waves. On May 20, 1986, an earthquake occurred near Hualien, with a magnitude of 6.2. In the same year, on November 15, there was another earthquake which occurred in the same area with a magnitude of 6.8. Although these epicenters were near Hualien, the major areas of disaster occurred in Taipei. It is therefore very important to understand that different geological conditions can result in different geological-seismic effects. Even within the Taipei basin, different locations also experience great differences in ground movement.
The information collected by the Strong Ground Motion Seismic Network can provide a standard for the review on current earthquake-resistant construction engineering. Hopefully the modified construction design will conform to economic and safety requirements for the future. As a result, the Central Weather Bureau has made a great effort to establish the Strong Ground Motion Seismic Network beginning in 1992. The purpose of this network is to collect long-term data on strong ground motion observed in each metropolitan area in Taiwan.
10. What are plate tectonics?
The theory of plate tectonics is mainly used to describe the structure of the outermost layers of the Earth and to explain the cause of earthquakes.
The outermost part of the Earth is called the lithosphere, which is made up of cold, rigid and moveable rocks. The average thickness of the lithosphere is about 100 km. Below the lithosphere lies the asthenosphere, which is made up by liquefied materials with high viscosity. Under high temperature and high pressure, these liquefied materials develop plasticity and make the lithosphere flow above it.
The basic concept of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere is divided into a few nearly rigid plates, including the Eurasian plate, American plate, African plate, Indian plate, Pacific plate, Antarctic plate, and a few other notable minor plates (see the picture below). These plates are subjected to different tension, pressure, gravity, and convection in the mantle. Hence, these plates move slowly every year by several centimeters, with different speeds of movement. This results in the existence of differences in the relative velocities between neighboring plates. Most earthquakes, volcanoes, and orogenesis are the result of the interactions among the neighboring plates.
There are three types of plate boundaries:
(1) Divergent boundaries: A phenomenon of the Earth’s crust extension, tension, and fracture movement. At the mid-ocean ridge location, neighboring tectonic plates mutually separate and produce the new lithosphere. Its material comes from the upper side of the mantle, and is produced by fusing. The Earth’s crust extends to both sides due to the tension. The earthquake often takes place along the boundaries of divergence, and the depth of the hypocenter is within 100 kilometers.
(2) Convergent boundaries: When two plates mutually collide at their intersection, the heavy plate inserts itself underneath the light one (by approximately a 30°~ 45° inclination angle). As such, the old lithosphere vanishes into the mantle, and this insertion is called the subduction zone. Because of the friction between two plates, earthquakes frequently occur along the subduction zone, which forms a seismic zone. The depths of the hypocenters may vary from very shallow to about 700 kilometers. The location near Hualien, Taiwan, is where the convergent boundary of the Eurasian plate and the Philippine Sea plate meet. Therefore, the frequency of the earthquake activities over the Hualien region is extremely high.
(3) Conservative boundaries: They neither produce the new lithosphere nor cause lithosphere vanishing. When any two neighboring tectonic plates act on each other with derailing friction, they produce earthquakes with shallow focal depths. The East Rift Valley Fault in Taitung is an examples of conservative boundaries between the Eurasian plate and the Philippine Sea plate.
11. What is the seismic zone?
Based on past monitoring experience, the majority of earthquakes have been distributed along a belt-shaped area, which is called the “seismic zone”.
They are mainly distributed as follows:
(1) Circum-Pacific seismic zone:
This refers to the areas around the Pacific Ocean, along the edge of the continents.
The western part of the circum-Pacific seismic zone starts from Aleutian Islands, through the Kuril Islands, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia down to New Zealand. The eastern part of the circum-Pacific seismic zone starts from Alaska, through North America and the west coast of Central and South America, down to the southern tip of the Andes.
(2) Eurasia seismic zone also known as the Mediterranean seismic zone:
This zone starts from the northern Mediterranean Sea, including the Italian Peninsula and Sicily, through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, northern India, and down to the boundaries of Qinghai and Xizang in China. This zone also branches over Xinjiang, and transfers to Gansu and Shaanxi.
(3) Mid-ocean-ridge seismic zone:
This zone appears in various ocean ridges, such as in the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, the East Pacific Ocean and the Arctic Ocean.
(4) Taiwan seismic zone.
12. What is the distribution of the seismic zone in Taiwan?
There are three major seismic belts in Taiwan:
(1) The west seismic belt: It starts from the south of Taipei, passing Taichung, Chiayi to Tainan, with a width about 80 kilometers and parallel to the island axis. The frequency of earthquakes on this belt is low, but the aftershocks are more frequent with shorter duration. The scope is quite general and the disaster situation is severe. This is due to the fact that the hypocenter is shallower (approximately 10 kilometers) and the Earth’s crust changes dramatically.
(2) The east seismic belt: The northern end of this belt starts from the seabed off the northeast of Yilan. It extends south-southwestward, passing Hualien, Chenggong to Taitung, and down to Luzon Island. The northernmost part of this belt extending from Yilan, links with the circum-Pacific seismic zone to the western Pacific Ocean seabed; the southern tip of the belt is almost connected to the Philippine seismic belt. This belt faces the Pacific Ocean in an arc shape and also runs parallel to Taiwan, which extends 130 kilometers. This belt is characterized by frequent earthquake activities. Usually, the hypocenter is deeper than its counterpart in the western area.
(3) The northeast seismic belt: This belt extends from Ryukyu Islands to the southwest, passing Hualien and Yilan, and reaches near upstream of the Lanyang River. This belt belongs to a shallow focal seismic zone.
13. What is the frequency of earthquake occurrence in Taiwan?
Since Taiwan is located on the circum-Pacific seismic zone, earthquake occurrence is quite frequent, and strong earthquakes occur quite often as well. According to the Central Weather Bureau’s earthquake monitoring information between 1900~1990, the average number of earthquakes in Taiwan is approximately 2,200 per year, of which, approximately 214 can be felt. After the major renewal of the CWB Seismic Network in 1991, the ability of earthquake detection improved drastically. The annual average number of earthquakes recorded from 1991 to 2004 increased to 18,649 (monthly average was approximately 1,554), of which approximately 1,047 were felt. In 1999, Taiwan had the highest number of earthquakes, mainly due to the influence of the Jiji (Chi-Chi) earthquake; there were 49,919 earthquakes, including 3,003 quakes felt. Based on the statistical analysis of catastrophic earthquake information, there have been 96 catastrophic earthquakes since 1900.
14. Is the occurrence of an earthquake related to the weather or season?
Many people believe that the occurrence of earthquakes and the weather are related; that there were more earthquakes when the weather was humid. But to date, there has been no scientific evidence to prove such an assertion. As for the relationship between the occurrence of earthquakes and season, in Taiwan, most earthquakes occur from September to January, followed by June. In terms of location; in Taipei area, there are more earthquakes in September and less in June; for the Hsinchu area, there are more earthquakes in November and less in February and March; for the Hualien area, there are more earthquakes in October and November, and less in June and July; whereas in Tainan and Taitung, there are more earthquakes in December. However, no scientific basis for such earthquake frequency and its relationships with the season has so far been proven.
15. Why do most earthquakes occur in the east of Taiwan?
Eastern Taiwan is located right on the junction between the Eurasian plate and the Philippine Sea plate. Therefore, more earthquakes occur in the east than in other locations in Taiwan. However, because most of them occur in the open sea, disasters are relatively small.
16. Why are the earthquakes more disastrous in the west of Taiwan?
Although the seismic activity in the west of Taiwan is not as frequent as in the east, earthquake damage is much more serious in the west due to the fact that most of the earthquakes in the west occur on land with shallow focal depths, and higher population density.
For example, a very strong earthquake happened in Hsinchu and Taichung in 1935, the Chiayi Earthquake in 1964 and the Jiji (Chi-Chi) Earthquake in 1999, all of which caused serious disasters.
17. What is the classification of earthquake-resistant standards for buildings in Taiwan?
After the Chi-Chi earthquake on September 21 of 1999, the Construction and Planning Agency, Ministry of the Interior, revised the part for earthquake-resistant construction design in the Taiwan construction technology regulation according to the most updated strong ground motion data available in December 1999 (MOI Tai-88-Nei-Ying-Zih-8878473). According to the regional seismic horizontal acceleration coefficient, earthquake areas are divided into Earthquake Division A and Earthquake Division B, the corresponding acceleration coefficient is 0.33g and 0.23g, respectively. The seismic regions include the municipality, the county (city), and the township (town, city), and are tabulated as in the following table:
Earthquake Division A
Yilan County, Hsinchu City, Hsinchu County, Miaoli County, Taichung City, Changhua County, Nantou County, Yunlin County, Chiayi City, Chiayi County, Tainan City, Hualien County, Taitung County.
Qishan District, Sanmin District, Liugui District, Neimen District, Jiaxian District, Shanlin District, Meinong District, Taoyuan District, Maolin District.
Hengchun Township, Jiuru Township, Neipu Township, Ligang Township, Checheng Township, Mudan Township, Changzhi Township, Laiyi Township, Taiwu Township, Gaoshu Township, Chunri Township, Shizi Township, Majia Township, Wanluan Township, Manzhou Township, Wutai Township, Yanpu Township, Linluo Township, Sandimen Township.
Earthquake Division B
Keelung City, Taipei City, New Taipei City, Taoyuan County, Kaohsiung City, Penghu County.
Fengshan District, Gangshan District, Dashe District, Daliao District, Dashu District, Renwu District, Tianliao District, Yong-an District, Alian District, Linyuan District, Ziguan District, Niaosong District, Jiading District, Luzhu District, Hunei District, Yanchao District, Qiaotou District, Mituo District.
Pingtung City, Donggang Township, Zhutian Township, Linbian Township, Jiadong Township, Fangshan Township, Fangliao Township, Nanzhou Township, Kanding Township, Liuqiu Township, Xinpi Township, Xinyuan Township, Wandan Township, Chaozhou Township.
Kinmen and Matsu do not belong to either division; however, they would best fit Earthquake Division B according to the earthquake horizontal acceleration coefficient.
18. What do the effects of the crustal deformation look like in Taiwan?
The major earthquake activities in Taiwan over the past years all appear as different forms of crustal deformation, such as ruptures of the Earth surface, landslides, and faults, etc. For example, on March 17, 1906, the very strong earthquake in Chiayi caused the formation of the Meizikeng Fault, which was 13 kilometers long, with the maximum horizontal displacement of 240 centimeters and maximum vertical displacement of 180 centimeters. Clay blasts and surface ruptures were remarkable phenomena found in many places.
The following are examples of obvious crustal deformations caused by an earthquake.
On April 21, 1935, Hsinchu and Taichung also had a very strong earthquake. The Tunzijiao Fault and the Shitan Fault were formed due to these. The Tunzijiao Fault was more than 10 kilometers long and the Shitan Fault was more than 20 kilometers long. The maximum horizontal displacement was 150 centimeters and maximum vertical displacement was 3 meters. Land sinking, landslides, surface ruptures and clay blasts were found in many places.
On December 17, 1941, the very strong earthquake in Chiayi did not cause any faults. However, it triggered many huge landslides instead. The mountain mass in Caoling moved 2,500 meters, and the falling rocks stacked up in the river valley. This earthquake induced a dammed lake called Qingshui Lake, which is rarely found in the world.
On December 5, 1946, Tainan strong earthquake caused the Xinhua Fault, which were 12 kilometers long with a maximum horizontal displacement of 220 centimeters and maximum vertical displacement of 200 centimeters. Clay blasts and surface ruptures were found in many places.
On September 21, 1999, the Jiji (Chi-Chi) earthquake caused around 100 kilometers of surface rupture from the Chelungpu Fault, with a maximum horizontal displacement of 7 meters and maximum vertical displacement of 4 meters. Sand and clay blasts were found in many places.
19. What is the cause of a tsunami?
Generally speaking, when there is an earthquake happens in the seabed it does not necessarily cause a tsunami. But when the earthquake is shallow and its magnitude is big enough, it can cause a change to the seabed, such as vertical displacement, oceanic trench avalanche and volcanic eruption, etc., and thus causes the sea level to form waves with a long wavelength, which is called a tsunami. Because its wavelength is long, the distance between the two neighboring wave crests may reach 500 to 650 kilometers. For more information on this situation, please see the next question below.
20. How does a tsunami propagate?
A tsunami is referred to as the long waves from its occurring area propagating out in each direction. Its speed v depends on the ocean depth, and the equation is as follows:
h: depth of the sea g: acceleration of gravity
Generally, in the deep and broad ocean, its propagation velocity is approximately 500 to 1,000 kilometers per hour. The wave height usually does not surpass 30 to 60 centimeters, which will not cause any problem to ships at sea level. However, when the waves approach the coast, these waves will be affected by the local littoral landforms and the ocean floor. Hence, the forward velocity of the waves is reduced, resulting in the stack phenomenon as to form huge waves. It causes major destruction to the coastal area and also the loss of life and property.
21. Are all tsunamis disastrous?
The majority of tsunamis are caused by huge earthquakes on or near the seabed, but not all seaquakes caused tsunamis. Meanwhile, not all tsunamis are big enough to be disastrous. The degree of damage that can be inflicted by a tsunami also depends on the local littoral landforms or the strike of accidental huge waves in the coastal area so as to cause loss of life and property.
22. Has Taiwan had any disasters caused by “tsunami” in the past?
According to historical records, there have been six instances of tsunami occurring in Taiwan since 1661. These events have been summarized respectively below:
(1) The German writer, Herport, in his travel diary stated that, “One day in January 1661, at 6 o’clock in the early morning an earthquake started that lasted about 30 minutes. The inhabitants all thought that the land had split. 23 houses collapsed in Anping, and much damage was done to this city. After the big earthquake were still unceasing aftershocks. It felt like sitting in the boat for almost three hours. No one was able to stand properly. In the meantime, three boats entered the port. They also vibrate intensely in the water, and one was nearly turned over. One of the most incredible incidents in this earthquake was that the sea water was once airborne, as if it had been a cloud. After this earthquake, people, regardless of their presence over the sea or on the land during the time of the quake, could still feel the vibrations for 6 weeks afterward”.
(2) Wang Bi Chang wrote in the general records of Taiwan County – Zazhi, Xiangyi: “On January 5, 1721, the earthquake happened again. The earthquakes lasted for more than ten days, a few times a day; houses collapsed and it killed the residents”. Zhu Yiqui stated in the 5th edition of historical data in Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties: “Due to the earthquakes, the sea water rose and the people prayed to God by singing together”. It seemed that the rise of the sea water might be related to the earthquake, and there was the possibility of tsunami.
(3) Taiwan interview book – Xiangyi, Earthquake: “The Teng port was located west to the Feng port (near by what is today Jiadong area in Pingtung). One day around April and May in the year of 1781, the weather was really clear and calm. Suddenly, the sea water roared like thunders. The sea water was greatly evacuated and then rose up about ten feet high. The neighboring villages were flooded. People all climbed up on to the top of the bamboo and thought they might be dead. By several quarters later, the water receded. People called for help on top of the bamboo. For those who were stronger they leaped to the ground and rescued other people. Nearby the large farms and the open fields were full of fish and shrimp jumping around; no more than 10 miles away, the village countrymen were trying to catch the fish and shrimp, picking them up with baskets. When the fishermen rafted past the bamboo and looked at the far distance they saw that the houses had been covered by the flood. When the tide was low, there were only a few thatched cottages in sight, nothing more left”. As there was no earthquake reported prior to this tsunami, it might have been caused by a remote earthquake.
(4) Taiwan interview book – Xiangyi, Earthquake wrote: “In 1792, as I was going to another town, it was the fifteenth day of the lunar calendar in June. I anchored the boat at Luermen, the ship often tossed but I never took it serious. Suddenly, the winds calmed down, yet the water surged several feet. The boatman said, ‘the earthquake is really strong’. It was the same in the ocean. The big boats swung greatly in the boundless dark sea, the earthquake was also felt. It was indeed unusual”.
(5) Alvarez wrote in the book Formosa: “On October 16, 1866 around 08:20 in the early morning, there came an earthquake which lasted approximately one minute or so. During the time, the forest, the houses, and the ships at the port all vibrated violently. The river dropped sharply by 3 feet and rose again suddenly; it seemed to flood at any time”.
(6) On December 18, 1867, an earthquake struck in north Taiwan. There were 15 aftershocks on the same day. Along the coastal Keelung (Jilongtou, Jinbaoli) area, the mountain leaned, the Earth ruptured, and the entire island vibrated. The houses fell over and there was damage throughout the city of Keelung where the casualties were counted in the hundreds. The sea water flowed out from Keelung Port to the open sea.
23. What are the Central Weather Bureau’s tsunami report/warning dissemination procedures?
The Central Weather Bureau tsunami report/warning dissemination processes are as follows:
(1) When the CWB monitors a tsunami caused by an earthquake with wave height above 50 cm around the coastal area of this country, a tsunami report shall be issued immediately and be informed to the central emergency management authorities, relevant agencies, and the media, to take necessary actions.
(2) When the CWB judges a tsunami would arrive and influence the coastal area of this country, a tsunami warning shall be issued immediately with respect to different circumstances:
(i) For tsunamis caused by distant earthquakes: When the CWB anticipates the tsunami would reach the coastal area in three hours, a tsunami warning shall be released and be reported to the central emergency management authorities, relevant agencies, and the media, to urge the coastal residents to get ready for action.
(ii) For tsunamis caused by nearby earthquakes: When the CWB detects an along shore or coastal earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or above and a focal depth of 35 km or less, a tsunami warning shall be released and be reported to the central emergency management authorities, relevant agencies, and the media, to urge the coastal residents to get ready for action.
(3) When the CWB judges that the tsunami threat has no more existed, a report on the termination of tsunami warning shall be issued accordingly.
24. What has been the most catastrophic earthquake disaster in Taiwan?
In the past hundred years, the largest earthquake that has caused the most disastrous number of casualties in Taiwan occurred at 06:02am on April 21 of 1935 – The Hsinchu Taichung very strong earthquake. The epicenter was located three kilometers south to the southeast of the Guandaoshan in Hsinchu, positioned at 24.4 N in latitude and 120.8 E in longitude. It took place at the intersection of the Tunzijiao Fault and the Shitan Fault. The Tunzijiao Fault extended 10 kilometers in length with a maximum horizontal displacement of 150 centimeters and the largest vertical displacement being 60 centimeters. The Shitan Fault extended 20 kilometers in length with the largest vertical displacement being 3 meters between Zhihu and Qiakeng and minimal horizontal displacement; which was really a special case. This earthquake resulted in 3,276 deaths, 12,053 people injured, 17,907 houses fully destroyed, 11,405 houses partially destroyed, and 25,376 houses damaged.
The most catastrophic earthquake that caused the most disastrous damage in Taiwan occurred at 01:47 am on September 21 of 1999 – the Nantou Jiji (Chi-Chi) earthquake. Its epicenter was located at 9 kilometers west of the Sun Moon Lake, positioned at 23.9 N in latitude, and 120.8 E in longitude. The Chelungpu Fault and the Shuangdong Fault formed the surface rupture zone which was approximately 100 kilometers in length with the maximum horizontal displacement of 7 meters and maximum vertical displacement of 4 meters. This earthquake resulted in 2,456 deaths, 10,718 injured, 53,661 houses fully destroyed, and 53,024 houses damaged.
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