Year 1800-1899

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1800-1812: Napoleons new Europe and scientific progress  

The political boundaries in Europe at the end of the 18th century and the constitutional arrangements within them were largely the legacy of medieval attempts at creating a pan-European empire. Germany was broken up into more than 300 different political units, ruled over by electors, archbishops, dukes, landgraves, city councils, counts, imperial knights, etc. What is now Belgium belonged to the Habsburgs and was ruled from Vienna, while Italy was divided up into 11 states, most of them ruled by Austrian Habsburgs or French and Spanish Bourbons. The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation included Czechs, Magyars and half a dozen other nationalities. Poland was divided into three regions, ruled from Berlin, Vienna and St. Petersburg, respectively. Especially the Polish situation was to have consequences for the near future in Europe.

Between 1801 and 1806, following his victories over Austria and Prussia, Napoleon transformed the political, social and economic climate throughout the German lands. Each annexed territory was reorganised along the lines of French Enlightenment thought, rulers were dethroned, the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved, imperial counts and knights lost their lands, nonsensical  borders were removed, caste privileges and other restrictions were abolished, and in their place came new institutions mounded on the French Pattern. The ending of feudal practices gave agriculture a boost, and the removal of tolls and frontiers liberated trade. The confiscation of church property was followed by the building of schools and the development of universities. Napoleon became very popular in most of Europe with the middle class, peasants, Jews, as well as with progressive intellectuals, students and writers. Many new scientific ideas and hypotheses were put forward in this new atmosphere of freedom.


William Henry (left), Wilhelm von Humboldt (center), and Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (right).


With the victories of Jena and Auerstädt in 1806 Napoleon destroyed the Prussian army and shook the Prussian state to the core. A far-ranging programme of reform and modernisation was initiated, affecting not only the army, but also many other aspects of life, to enable Prussia to liberate and unite the German lands and challenging French cultural and political primacy. A powerful tool to obtain this was to be higher education, and Wilhelm von Humboldt was put in charge of a programme of reform, that culminated in the opening of a university in Berlin 1810.

Science in many other countries in Europe than just Prussia benefited directly or indirectly from Napoleon's period of French Enlightenment in the early 19th century. This development should also bee seen on the general background of the significant mental and cultural progress, which characterised the previous 18th century. The 18th century is in Europe also known as the century of enlightenment. To a high degree this was due to the efforts of the astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, where he played a major role in the scientific revolution. With great clarity, he was able to describe and convince people of the fundamental difference between faith and formal knowledge. As a result of these previous developments the early 19th century was characterised by the proposal of many new scientific hypotheses and ideas, several of which were to have lasting influence on science in the form of fundamental theories.

One example of this is the English chemist William Henry (1775-1836), who in 1803 described his results with experiments on the quantity of gases (e.g. CO2) absorbed by water at different temperatures and under different pressures. His results are known today as Henrys law. This fundamental law among other things describes how the solubility of CO2 in water decreases with temperature.

Shortly after this, in 1816 and again in 1827, the French mathematician and physicist Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier proposed the hypothesis that the atmospheric temperature would depend, among other things, on the amount of atmospheric CO2. This resulted in the first broad scientific interest for CO2 as a chemical substance, and various scientists began measuring the actual concentration of atmospheric CO2. This was seen to vary over time, and using Henry's law, such variations were explained by small variations in the sea surface temperature, controlling the solubility of CO2 in ocean water. Also various geological and biological processes were considered as being potentially important for the variable atmospheric CO2 content. In addition to proposing the CO2 hypothesis, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier actually became best known for initiating the investigation of mathematical Fourier series and their application to problems of heat flow.

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1812: Background for Napoleon's Russian campaign  

Also in 1806, Napoleon won a conclusive battle against Austria at Wagram, Austria was forced to sign the treaty of Vienna, which reduced it to a state of powerlessness. From a military point of view, Napoleon had gained control over most of Europe and was beginning to create a European Community, almost 200 years before it became a reality. As was the case for Adolf Hitler 129 years later, only two European nations stood between him and the total political dominance: Britain and Russia.


The two emperors Napoleon (left) and Alexander I (right) negotiating the Tilsit Treaty in a pavilion set up on a raft in the middle of the Niemen River, beginning 25 June 1807.  

In November 1806 the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church issued a denunciation of Napoleon, accusing him of conspiring with evil people against the Christan Faith, due to Napoleons declaration of his regard for Islam. Russia therefore launched a military crusade against him. This initiative was cut short by Napoleon routing the Russian army at Eylau (January 1807) and at Friedland (June 1807). Tsar Alexander I of Russia the sensibly enough suggested peace and and an alliance, which was negotiated and signed 7 July 1807 at Tilsit.

Cracks in this alliance, however, rapidly began to show. Especially Napoleon's creation of the Grande Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 had, in effect, introduced the first material renewed conflict of interest between France and Russia. This new political unit inevitably raised the possibility of a restoration of the Kingdom of Poland. Such a restoration would entail the loss of Russia of some if not all previous land acquisitions at the expense of Poland - an area of 463,000 km2 with a population of more than seven million. Napoleon was beginning to fear that Russia would use the Polish question as an excuse to seek an understanding with Britannia. The French-Russian relationship began to deteriorate. By 1811, there was much open talk about the coming war in both countries, although probably both Napoleon and Alexander had no personal wishes to go down the road to war.

Caught up by the internal dynamics of this development, Napoleon decided to strike first, and began a relentless build-up of forces through the autumn and winter of 1811 and into the spring of 1812. The army Napoleon was assembling would be large by any scale, including soldiers from almost every nation of Europe. The largest non-French contingent were the Poles, who numbered some 95,000. In total, the 'Grande Armée' probably numbered around 450,000. Also Alexander did everything he could to prepare his armed forces for the expected confrontation, and in 1812 he had almost 600,000 men under arms. Napoleons army, however, was fortified by the reputation of the French arms: The common belief that they were invincible made them almost invincible.

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1812: Napoleon's Russian summer campaign   

22 June 1822 the Grande Armée invaded Russia, crossing the river Niemen. What officially was proclaimed as the Second Polish War had begun. The Russian army had spend a year and a half deploying for an offensive, but instead began retreating the moment operations began. To add to the general confusion, issues like command and strategy had not been decided because of chaos and intrigue at the Russian headquarters. As nobody and nothing was prepared, the Russian army commanded by general Barclay therefore continued their retreat without major resistance, looking for a suitable position in which to make a stand. Apparently such a position was not easily found, so the retreat continued for weeks. This development left people in Moscow and St. Petersburg bewildered about what was going on, and Tsar Alexander found himself in a difficult position. Already on 28 June Napoleon entered Vilna, 170 km east of Niemen.

In western Russia the weather July 1806 turned out to be exceedingly warm with daytime temperatures reaching 36oC (Zamoyski 2005). Many French soldiers who had previously campaigned in Egypt claimed that they had never marched in such a heat. Early July a heavy thunderstorm drifted across the area near Vilna, for a short time making all roads impassable. Worse, loses among the Grande Armée's horses were horrific. This left Napoleon's artillery in a difficult position, but the army’s supply organisation was even harder affected. After the rainstorm, the warm weather continued. The remaining horses were having a terrible time. Unused to the kind of diet they were exposed to, they suffered from colic and diarrhoea or constipation. The overall supply situation therefore rapidly deteriorated, and most soldiers had to find something to eat and to prepare it themselves. Not surprisingly, under these circumstances, many soldiers died of dehydration, malnutrition and hunger, while others got dysentery. When the Grande Armée 28 July reached Vitebsk 400 km into Russia, the whole army had already been reduced by a third, without fighting a single major battle. The summer weather was beginning to turn the whole campaign into a nightmare.

The Russian army was no happier than the French, and its troops were in a state of dejection as they retreated towards Smolensk, 380 km southwest of Moscow. Napoleon was convinced that the Russian army would have to fight in defence of the wholly city of Smolensk. The Russian forces and general Barclay were, however, in a state of tactical confusion, and no strong defence of the city was organised. Smolensk went up into flames, and fell to Napoleon 17 August. The burnt-out city represented neither an effective bastion nor a hard-needed resource for his army. According to his secretary Baron Fain (Zamoyski 2005), Napoleon himself was presumably feeling disheartened and disgusted at the turn events had taken, and did not quite know what to do next. 

The battle of Smolensk had also demonstrated the unpleasant fact to Napoleon, that the individual Russian soldier did not lay down his arms even in very difficult situations. 129 years later Adolf Hitler would make the identical observation. The French were dismayed by all this. This was not how war was supposed to be. In addition, these discomforts were added to by the fact that the Russians had adopted a new tactic now that the invaders were in the Russian homeland proper. They evacuated the entire population as they retreated, leaving towns and villages deserted and burnt down. It became increasingly difficult for the French army to find provisions.

Napoleon realised that he could not stop where he was, and as he would not retreat for political reasons, he could only advance in the hope of eventually obtaining a decisive military victory over the Russians. If not before, the Russians would surely make a stand in defence of their old capital Moscow. Based on existing knowledge on climate in western Russia, Napoleon at that time expected at least two months of decent campaigning weather ahead.

The mood at Russian headquarters was hardly better, even though the general situation was changing in their favour. The retreat was a good deal less orderly than before, and the Russian armies were now leaving behind them a trail of abandoned wagons and dead or dying men and horses. Like the French, the Russians were disturbed by the inhumane turn the campaign had taken. The ongoing retreat meant that discipline were fast breaking down, and everybody was on the lookout for traitors. All this was having a detrimental effect on the army and Barclay's authority.

In St. Petersburg Tsar Alexander found the general mood depressingly defeatist, and decided that the Russian army needed a new commander instead of Barclay. He was hard pressed by the public opinion to choose Field Marshal Mikhail Ilarionovich Kutuzov as Barclay's successor. Alexander himself was not to happy about this, as he considered Kutuzov both immoral and incompetent. His sister Catherine, however, urged him to bow to the inevitable, and Kutozov was appointed 20 August 1812. Kutuzov declared that he was going to save Moscow, and set off to find his headquarters.

After assessing the state of the Russian army Kutuzov suddenly felt that he could not face Napoleon, whose strength now was gauged at 165,000, down from the original 450,000. The Russian summer had taken its toll. Kutuzov therefore decided to continue the retreat initiated by Barclay two months before. Perhaps he also suspected Napoleon to be a superior general to himself. On 3 September Kutuzov inspected defensive positions found near the village of Borodino, about 100 km west of Moscow. Here he was going to make a stand.

Kutuzov took up entirely defensive positions without any tactical possibility of gaining the initiative. Luckily for him, Napoleon had just caught a cold with an associated attack of dysuria, and was in anything approaching his usual form. In fact, Napoleon was going to deliver probably the worst performance of his entire military career. The invading French army was now down to 126,000, while Kutuzov had about 155,00 men under his command.


The Battle at Borodino 6 September 1812 (oil painting by Hess), with Napoleon watching from the Shevardino Redoubt (oil painting by Vereschagin). 


The first large battle during Napoleon's Russian campaign began in the morning of 6 September 1812. Before this battle, both armies had lost more than half their original strength during eight weeks of Russian summer. The battle of Borodino was a hard fought battle with several Russian counterattacks, but slowly the French was getting the upper hand due to its superiority on the tactical level, and the Russian army had to retreat. The battle of Borodino was the greatest massacre in recorded history, not to be surpassed until the first day of the battle at Somme in 1916. Recent estimates give a total of about 73,000 casualties, 45,000 Russian and 28,000 French including allies.

Kutuzov's army was now in no condition to give battle on any positions, however strong. He therefore fell back to Moscow, announcing that he would fight in front of the city to the last drop of blood. In reality, he continued the retreat through the city to the consternation of the inhabitants. Kutuzov then turned south and later southwest, setting up a fortified camp for his army near Tarutino, about 120 km SW of Moscow.

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1812: Napoleon in Moscow  

In the afternoon of 14 September, what was left of the Grande Armée entered Moscow. Napoleon took up residence at the Kremlin the following day. About two-thirds of the 270,184 inhabitants had left, and the remainder were hiding in their homes. Nobody with an official status was left to take care of a formal surrender and make arrangements for feeding the soldiers, as would normally be the case in a civilised war. To make things even worse, before leaving Moscow, the city commander Count Rostopchin had ordered his Police Superintendant Voronenko to burn not only the remaining supplies, but everything he could. Voronenko and his men set to work, presumably assisted by the city's criminal elements. The fire raged out of control and spread to several districts of the city. In the morning of 16 September flames were lapping around the walls of Kremlin, and Napoleon had to evacuate himself and take up residence in the Petrovsky Palace, a few kilometres outside Moscow.


Moscow burning 15-18 September 1812. On the 18 September Napoleon returns to Kremlin after having evacuated himself to the Petrovsky Palace outside Moscow. Oil paintings by Vereschagin.


After three days the fire began to abate, and on 18 September Napoleon rode back into Moscow. Two thirds of the city was destroyed by the fire, robbing him of a wealth of material resources. And there was still no delegation formally surrendering Moscow to him. Even worse, Tsar Alexander still apparently did not understand that Russia was defeated, and therefore had no ambitions of making peace with Napoleon. It was all very frustrating.

Napoleon now had to consider taking up winter quarters in Moscow. Alternatively he would have to retreat with his back home, a move which for political reasons was difficult. So for the time being, he choose to remain in Moscow, hoping that Alexander finally would come to his senses.

Napoleon had studied the available weather information, which told him that it normally did not get really cold until the beginning of December, so he did not feel any sense of urgency. What he did not realise, was how sudden low temperatures may come if a high pressure area settles over eastern Europe, pumping arctic air masses south across Russia, where the lack of high mountains leave the whole country open for arctic air masses. In addition, he had no experience of temperature being only one factor, but that the wind strength also had to be taken into account.

Early October 1812 the weather remained to be fine and warm, and Napoleon was teasing Caulaincourt, his chief adviser, about his anxiety about the winter climate. On 13 October, however, the weather suddenly turned cold, and Moscow was covered in a blanket of thin snow. Presumably this was a meteorological surprise to Napoleon, and it rapidly made him make up his mind. The same day he declared that the army would leave as rapid as possible, and take up winter quarters further west, where well-stocked bases were at hand in Minsk and Vilna. Napoleons army left Moscow 20 October.

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1812: Napoleon's retreat from Moscow  

The actual armed forces at Napoleon's disposal as he left Moscow numbered no more than 95,000, and probably less. Marchal Kutuzow was still camping passively SW of Moscow, reinforcing his army to about 97,000 men. He was, however, still in no hurry to engage in regular warfare. So while Napoleon was retreating west towards Smolensk along the Moscow road, Kutuzov did not seriously attempt to cut across their line of retreat, even though he was excellently placed to do so.

The French retreat was slow, mainly due to lack of horsepower. The shortage of fodder had debilitated the horses, and they were growing too week to pull the guns and wagons. Part of the problem was that Napoleon saw himself carrying out a tactical withdrawal rather than a retreat. Therefore he refused to abandon a proportion of their guns to liberate horses and thereby save time. This determination not to loose face would cost him dear. As well as slowing their progress, all this had a demoralising effect on the French troops, marching down a devastated road, seeing only abandoned equipment, human and animal corpses. Kutuzow was still following south of the French army, but resolutely opposed to any suggestions from his generals to make an offensive move.

The good news for the French was that the weather was magnificent, and that the early snow in Moscow presumably just was a meteorological mishap. On 31 October, at Viazma, Napoleon therefore ridiculed those who had been attempting to scare him with stories of the Russian winter. The weather remained fine during the first days of November 1812, until 3 November, which was to be the last warm day. The wind turned north and the night between 4 and 5 November brought with it a rapid drop in air temperature. On 6 November the French retreat was entering a new phase. It began to snow, and in short time it lay half a meter thick on the ground. The drop in temperature had not been that great, probably not exceeding -10oC. But the French army was not used to or dressed for cold weather. There was no such thing as a winter uniform, since in those days armies did not fight in winter. The cold also provided the last straw for many of the remaining horses. The meteorological change early November 1812 had a profound effect on the whole French army.

Napoleon and his army retreating across western Russia early November 1812. 


Also the Russian army under Kutuzow was affected by the cold, and food and clothing was equally scarce. The war now grow even more vicious than before, and captives had become an unwelcome encumbrance to both sides. Many prisoners, French or Russian, were simply despatched with a bullet to the head.

When Napoleon 9 November reached Smolensk, the wind was still northerly and air temperatures were down to -15oC. On 14 November, they sank to -28oC. His army was now reduced to about 35,000 men. Kutuzow made some attempts at intersecting Napoleons further retreat towards Minsk, but without substantial success. 22 November Napoleon reached Tolochin, where he was informed that other Russian forces just had taken Minsk further to the west. What was left of the French army was surrounded. Napoleon, nevertheless, managed to extricate himself from this impossible situation by fainting an attack towards south, while his engineers at the same time was constructing two bridges across the frozen river Berezina, which was crossed 27-28 November.

The following two days may have been among the worst of the entire retreat. When Napoleon reached Pleshchenitse on 30 November, a temperature of -30oC was recorded be Dr. Louis Lagneau (Zamoyski 2005). Frostbite was widespread among the tired and hungry soldiers. Selfishness reached new heights. Now that Napoleon had managed to get beyond his reach, Kutuzov felt even less inclined to force the pursuit than before. Also his army was in a terrible condition. His main force, which has marched out of Tarutino 97,000 strong one month before, was now reduced to 27,000 men due to the cold, according to his own figures (Zamoyski 2005).


Retreat of the French army in western Russia, mid- and late November 1812. Oil paintings by Vereschagin.


On the evening of 5 December, at Smorgonie, Napoleon decided that it was time for him to go back to Paris, and take control from there. He called together his marshals and apparently apologised for his mistake of having remained in Moscow for too long. He then set off into the night. The Imperial Mameluke, Roustam, later reported that the wine in Napoleon's carriage froze that night, causing the bottles to shatter. On 6 December the temperature fell even more, reaching -37.5oC according to Dr. Louis Lagneau. 

This was the end. On 9 December the main mass of the French army turned up at the gates of Vilnia. Vilnia, however, could not be hold, and the retreat had to continue towards the starting point along the river Niemen. The weather continued bitterly cold, with daytime temperatures around -35oC. The French commander Murat realised that the line of Niemen could not be held, and had to retreat all the way to first nigsberg, and later Danzig and Küstrin much longer to the west.

It was only when the French retreat finally came to a stop towards the end of January 1813 that the true scale of the disaster began to emerge. June 1812 somewhere between 550,000 and 600,000 French and allied troops have been assembled along Niemen. Only about 120,000 came out of Russia in December 1812, including substantial reinforcements received after the invasion was launched 22 June. Presumably at least 400,000 French and allied troops died during the campaign, less than 100,000 in battle. On the Russian side is has been estimated that up to 400,000 soldiers and militia died, about 110,000 of them in battle. 

The extremely cold winter November-December 1812, in combination with the previous warm summer July-August 1812 had been devastating for the whole military operation on both French and Russian side, and were to have lasting effects on Europe's political future.

The catastrophic outcome of the Russian campaign sealed Napoleon's fate. Not only did it cost him 300,000 of his best French soldiers (today this would compare to a loss of 700,000 men), but it also punctured the aura of superiority and being invincible that has been surrounding Napoleon's person. Few saw this more clearly than the German patriots in Prussia, who had been suffering under the humiliation of French dominion. On 28 February 1813 an alliance was concluded between Russia and Prussia, and two weeks the latter declared war on France.

In astonishingly short time Napoleon managed to raise a new army of 200,000 men, and defeated the combined Russo-Prussian force at Lützen on 2 May and at Bautzen 20 May, but all to no avail. Sweden joined the coalition against Napoleon and Britain contributed money. And as Napoleon's enemies grew in strength, his remaining allies began to waver. On 12 August Austria declared war on France. Napoleon responded by defeating a combined Russian-Austrian army 26 August outside Dresden. On 16 October 1813 Napoleon faced the combined forces of the new coalition at Leipzig, being outnumbered by two to one. Napoleon nevertheless held his ground for long, but finally had to fell back across the Rhine early November 1813. In the spring of 1814 he fought his perhaps most brilliant campaign against the invading armies on French soil, but was unable to do more than delay the evitable end. Paris capitulated 31 March 1814, and Napoleon was force to abdicate on 6 April, less than 18 month after leaving Moscow. He was exiled to the island of Elba off the Italian coast. One year later, on 1 March 1815, he landed in France and took power once again. On 18 June 1815 he was defeated at Waterloo by a combined British and Russian army under Wellington. Even at this final confrontation, Napoleon proved himself to be an outstanding general. The final outcome of the battle was, in a phrase used by the Duke of Wellington in describing his victory at Waterloo, "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life" (Massie 2005). Napoleon was then exiled to St. Helena in the southern part of the Atlantic Ocean, where he died 5 May 1821.

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1815: The year without summer. The Tambora volcanic eruption  

The 1815 eruption of Tambora was probably the largest eruption in historic time. About 150 cubic kilometres of ash were erupted. This is about 150 times more than the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in USA. Ash fell as far as 1,300 km from the volcano. In central Java and Kalimantan, 900 km from the eruption, one centimetre of ash fell. The eruption column is estimated to have reached a height of about 45 km.

An estimated 92,000 people were killed by the eruption. About 10,000 direct deaths were caused by bomb impacts, tephra fall, and pyroclastic flows, the rest indirectly by starvation, disease, and hunger. The eruption apparently lowered average world temperature by about 0.5-0.7°C over a period of 2-3 years. The 1815 eruption of Tambora was followed in North America and Europe by what was called "the year without a summer". London experienced snow in August.



Central England temperature series 1770-1840. The length of the cooling effect of the Tambora 1815 eruption is indicated by the blue bar. These graphs has been prepared using the composite monthly meteorological series since 1659, originally painstakingly homogenized and published by the late professor Gordon Manley (1974). The data series is now updated by the Hadley Centre and may be downloaded from there by clicking here. A graph showing the entire Central England temperature series since 1659 can be seen by clicking here


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1817: Royal Society of London on the retreat of Arctic sea ice  

President of the Royal Society, London, to the Admiralty, 20th November, 1817 (Royal Society of London 1817):

"It will without doubt have come to your Lordship's knowledge that a considerable change of climate, inexplicable at present to us, must have taken place in the Circumpolar Regions, by which the severity of the cold that has for centuries past enclosed the seas in the high northern latitudes in an impenetrable barrier of ice has been during the last two years, greatly abated....

..... this affords ample proof that new sources of warmth have been opened and give us leave to hope that the Arctic Seas may at this time be more accessible than they have been for centuries past, and that discoveries may now be made in them not only interesting to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations."

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1822-1878: Petermann and the model of the open Arctic Ocean    

August Heinrich Petermann (left). Map of the Arctic published around 1860 (right).


August Heinrich Petermann (1822-1878) was a German cartographer and geographer. In 1854 he was appointed as director of the geographical institute of Justus Perthes in Gotha (Germany), and in 1855 founded the famous geographical journal Petermanns Mittellungen, which existed until 2004.

August Petermann’s main geographical interest was two-fold: The geography of the interior of Africa, and that of the North Polar regions. His Arctic interest made August Peterman an engaged supporter of the model of an ice-free Arctic Ocean around the North Pole. The warm Kuro Siwo current in the Pacific Ocean was imagined to flow through the Bering Strait to combine with the Gulf Stream flowing into the Arctic Ocean between Greenland And Svalbard. Based on this assumption, it was calculated that warm water masses would rise to the surface near the Pole to create an open polar sea, possibly teeming with life, or to surround an unknown continent populated with creatures as yet undiscovered. The basic flaw was the lack of knowledge on the shallow water depth in the Bering Strait, which makes water exchange between the Arctic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean negligible.

In 1852, August Petermann's belief in the ice-free central part of the Arctic Ocean made him propose that search expeditions for the lost Franklin expedition should sail north between  Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya, thereby taking a shortcut to the open, navigable Polar Sea, providing easy access to the areas north of the American continent.

Petermann was appointed as royal geographer by Queen Victoria. He later died by his own hand at Gotha on September 25, 1878.

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1830-1850: Famine and depopulation of the Scottish Highlands  

Flood in the Highlands; painting by Sir Edwin Landseer. From the 1820s Landseer painted many scenes from highland life, particularly wildlife.

For political reasons, in the 19th century liberty was a dangerous word in Scotland, and it was not much used, especially in the Highlands. In addition, Little Ice Age climate conditions often made a difficult situation even worse. Many people therefore simply choose to leave and emigrated to Canada. In 1831, 58,000 people left (Hanley 1995). A year later, more than 60,000. The law limiting the number of passengers per ship had been abandoned in 1827, and the conditions of the emigrants were appalling. A great many died before they could see the New World .


A magazine illustration from 1853 showing the loading of a ship with emigrants from the Isle of Skye, northwestern Scotland.


It was, however, the climate-induced famine of the 1840s that started the real emptying of the Scottish Highlands. The British Government, which had once tried to find ways of preventing the depopulation of the Highlands , now wanted the area emptied, and all its troubles off its hands. It, however, stopped short of providing the money for the depopulation scheme. One official, visiting the departure of a emigrant ship from Glasgow , was disturbed to find that the Highland emigrants all looked strong and healthy (Hanley 1995). He had assumed that the purpose of the emigrations was to rid the highlands of the poor, the sick and the useless. Apparently, also the healthy ones at that time have had enough of the adverse climate and the difficult politically conditions.


Deserted farm buildings in Trath Filland, 2 km northwest of Crianlarich, western Scotland, February 15, 2008. The location is about 200 m above sea level, and the main modern crop is grass because of the limited number of growing degree days. The former farm is located on a slope facing SW, in an attempt to maximise solar radiation in the afternoon, while fog and low clouds often dominate the meteorological conditions during the morning in this part of Scotland.


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1840: Arctic explorations becomes a national obsession in England  

John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty (left). Map showing area of Canada where the Hudson's Bay Company was active (centre). John Rae, the Arctic traveller and Hudson's Bay Company doctor, who later solved the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition and found the last navigable link in the Northwest Passage.


By the early 1840s, Arctic exploration had attained the status of a national obsession in England, with the elusive Northwest Passage serving as its Holy Grail (McGoogan 2002).

During the past three and a half centuries, northern Europeans, lead by Great Britain, had spend huge sums of money searching for a navigable sea route around northern North America . The driving notion was, at least initially, that such a route would give them trading access to the fabled riches of China .

Since the 1570s, when Martin Frobisher identified two possible Atlantic entrances ( Hudson Bay and Davis Strait ), the quest for this Northwest Passage had proven fatal to hundreds. In 1611, for example, Henry Hudson had been set adrift in a lifeboat by a mutinous crew, never to be seen again; eight years later, Jens Munk lost all but two of his 63 men to scurvy and starvation; and in 1719, James Knight disappeared into the Arctic forever with two ships and 37 men.

Part of the reason for the growing interest in Arctic exploration in Great Britain was the situation following the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. In 1809, at the height of the Napoleon wars, the British navy was the most powerful in history, with 773 ships, 4,444 officers, and 140,000 sailors. By 1818, however the Admiralty could use only 121 ships and 19,000 crewmen. Regular sailors were simply discharged, but what to do with all those excess naval officers, most of whom continued to draw half-pay?

John Barrow, second secretary to the Admiralty, therefore renewed the quest for the Northwest Passage . Commercial interest had long since evaporated, but Barrow justified the endeavour as advancing scientific knowledge and also on the grounds of national pride. Especially, it was argued, would it not be a national scandal if, after the British had tried for centuries, the upstart Russians were finally going to solve the Arctic mystery by navigating the Northeast Passage before the Northwest Passage was navigated by the British ?

Also, because the Hudson’s Bay Company had begun to map the Arctic coastline of North America , the Northwest Passage was beginning to take shape as two parallel channels extending respectively from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and needing only to be linked by a short, north-south third channel. The Hudson's Bay Company doctor John Rae (see picture above) was instrumental in these discoveries. The Lords of the Admiralty therefore felt that the final discovery lay within easy reach, especially given recent advances in technology. One more expedition would almost certainly resolve the mystery.

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1845-1848: The Franklin Expedition to the Northwest Passage  

Satellite picture showing the central parts of the Northwest Passage, as known in 1845, when the Franklin Expedition sailed. Direction of view is towards northeast. The yellow dot shows where Erebus and Terror were beset 1846. The red dot shows where they were abandoned April 1848. King Williams Island is seen shortly southeast of the red dot. Greenland is seen in the far distance. Picture source: Google Earth.


In September 1843 James Clark Ross returned triumphantly with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror from a brilliant three-year voyage of exploration in Antarctic seas, during which the Ross Sea and the Ross Ice Shelf were discovered and named. Their arrival offered John Barrow a last opportunity, before his retirement in 1845 aged eighty, to mount the decisive expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

The Royal British Navy therefore decided to send a well-equipped Arctic expedition to complete the charting of the Northwest Passage. After Sir James Ross declined an offer to command the expedition because of his age (45), an invitation was extended to Sir John Franklin, who accepted despite his age (59). Sir John had previous experience from the Arctic , and had mapped a significant part of the northern coastline of Canada. In 1819-22 he led a disastrous overland expedition into the Northwest Territories of Canada along the Coppermine River, losing 11 of the 20 men in his party from starvation.

The new British expedition with John Franklin in command was ordered to gather magnetic data in the Canadian Arctic and to complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage , which by then had already been partly charted from both the east and west, but had never been entirely navigated.

The expedition was provided with the two sturdy navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, just returned from their Antarctic journey. Both ships was build as so-called bomb vessels. Bomb vessels were strongly built in order to withstand the enormous recoil of their 3 ton mortars, and this made them suited to Arctic service. Both ships were equipped with converted railway twenty-horsepower steam engines that enabled the ships to make 4 knots on their own power, and also provided a novel heating device for the comfort of the crew. In addition, a mechanism that enabled the iron rudder and propeller to be drawn into iron wells to protect them from damage when in thick ice. Iron plating was added to their hulls. The expedition brought and three years preserved or tinned preserved food supplies with them. The quality of the canned soups and meat have since been reason for concern, and may have contributed to the sad outcome of the expedition. Captain James Fitzjames, was given command of HMS Erebus while Captain Francis Crozier was named executive commander and commander of HMS Terror.

Being well aquainted with Erebus and Terror from his Antarctic expedition, James Ross thought that the two ships were to big for the planned operation, and was convinced the expoedition would fail. No one, least of all Franklin himself, listened to Ross.

The Franklin Expedition set sail May 19, 1845 , with a crew of 24 officers and 110 men. The ships first travelled north to Aberdeen for additional supplies. From Scotland , the ships sailed to Greenland . After misjudging the location of Godhavn (Qeqertarssuag), Disko Island, central West Greenland , the expedition turned back and finally harboured at Godhavn to prepare for the rest of their voyage. Five crew members were sent home on two accompanying ships, reducing the final expedition crew size to 129. The expedition was last seen by Europeans on July 26, 1845 , when the Peterhead whaler Enterprise encountered Terror and Erebus moored to an iceberg in Melville Bay.


Sir John Franklin (left). The note found by McClintock in May 1859 in a cairn south of Back Bay, King William Island, describing the fate of the Franklin Expedition until April 1848 (centre left). Relics of Franklin's expedition brought back by John Rae in 1854 (centre right). Captain Crozier of the Terror, Franklin's second in command (right).


The remaining part of the summer 1845 was used exploring the Wellington Channel northwest of Devon Island . The Wellington channel was found to be blocked by thick, old ice. Late September 1845 the expedition found a safe winter harbour on the south coast of Beechey Island . The following summer 1846 the expedition sailed south west of Summerset Island, towards King William Island (at that time believed to represent an peninsula extending from south), to explore the southern of the two alleged channels which were supposed to represent the final leg of the Northwest Passage.

Presumably Franklin was aware of the contemporary notion of the sea east of King Williams Island being a closed bay, wherefore he decided to force his way through thick ice along the west coast of King Williams Island . This proved to be a fatal misjudgement, as this region usually is covered with multiyear sea ice, transported by the prevailing wind down the McClintock Channel, and therefore in a continuous state of compression. During the Little Ice Age the ice conditions presumably were worse than is typically seen today. Had Franklin instead sailed east of King Williams Island , which in reality is not a closed bay and only covered by seasonal ice (as observed by John Rae in 1854), he might well have been successful in navigating the entire Northwest Passage .

Terror and Erebus were rapidly beset in the thick ice in the southern part of McClintock Channel. Their twenty-horsepower steam engines were no match for meter-thick sea ice. Not surprisingly, the multiyear ice did not melt the following summer 1847, and both ships had to be abandoned in April 1848. Sir John Franklin himself died in June 1847. A desperate attempt to walk and sail to safety in the south with smaller boats was attempted, but in vain. No members of the expedition survived.

A number of rescue expeditions were organized. The German geographer August Petermann in 1852 proposed that a search expedition should be send northwards through 'the wide opening' between Spitsbergen and Novaya Zemlya which 'probably offers the easiest and most advantageous entrance into the open, navigable Polar Sea, and perhaps the best route for the search after Sir John Franklin' (Brown 1858). 

The Hudson's Bay Company doctor John Rae was, however, in 1854 was the first to collect evidence and information from local Inuit’s pointing to the fate of the Franklin expedition. Most rescue expeditions were searching elsewhere than the region near King Williams Island, as it was not believed that the lost navigators would be found anywhere near the coast of the continent. It was reasoned that if Franklin’s ships had iced up anywhere near the western shore of Boothia Peninsula and had to be abandoned, the crews would certainly have followed the example of Sir John Ross and Sir James Ross in 1832 and would have retreated toward Fury Beach on the east coast of Somerset Island . There, where Sir Edward Parry had wrecked MHS Fury in 1825, they would not only have found a large depot of provisions and fuel, but would also have been in a position to attract the attention of whaling ships, just as John and James Ross had done previously. Furthermore, to travel south with a view to reaching some tiny Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading outpost would involve a much longer journey with a far smaller chance of success.

Captain Leopold McClintock commanded one of the rescue expeditions and later in a book published about his voyage wrote (McGoogan 2001):

Had Sir John Franklin known that a channel existed eastward of King William Land (so named by Sir John Ross), I do not think he would have risked the besetment of his ships in such very heavy ice to the westward of it; but had he attempted the northwest passage by the eastern route, he would probably have carried his ships safely through to Behring’s Straits. But Franklin was furnished with charts which indicated no passage to the eastward of King William’s Land, and made that land (since discovered by Rae to be an island) a peninsula attached to the continent of North America; and he consequently had but one course open to him, and that the one he adopted.

In many respects John Rae can be said to have discovered the final link in the only Northwest Passage navigable by nineteenth-century ships. The final link in the passage therefore rightfully carries his name: Rae Strait . Half a century later, when Roald Amundsen in 1903-06 became the first to navigate the entire Northwest Passage , he did so by sailing his small 47-ton ship called the Gjøa through the channel discovered by John Rae in 1854. 

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1851: Jakobshavn Isbræ in West Greenland reaches LIA maximum and begins to retreat  

Disko Bay and Jakobshavn Isbræ, a calving outlet glacier from the Greenland Ice Sheet, seen from southwest. Jakobshavn Isfjord and Jakobshavn Isbræ is seen near the centre of the picture. Disko Island is seen to the left, and part of the Greenland Ice Sheet is seen in the background. The distance from southernmost Disko Island to the mouth of the ice-filled Jakobshavn Isfjord (Ilulissat Icefjord) is about 100 km. Picture source: Google Earth.


The Disko Bay region in central West Greenland (c. 70oN) is characterised by large outlet glaciers from the Greenland Ice Sheet (the Indland Ice). The major glacier Jakobshavn Isbræ is situated in a major subglacial valley, which can be traced inland for about 100 km (Echelmeyer et al. 1991). The water depth in the fjord reaches 1500 m in its outer parts (Iken et al. 1993). 

The first thorough glaciological studies in this area were those by Rink (1853), who introduced the terms Inland Ice and ice streams. The Disko Bay was deglaciated rapidly around 10.500-10.000 years ago, in the early part of the present interglacial (Weidick 1968). When the retreating ice front reached the coastline at the mouth of the Jakobshavn Isfjord (Ilulissat Icefjord), the retreat was interrupted while the glacier front was resting on a bank near Ilulissat 200-300 m below the present sea level. Later, the glacier again retreated, and reached the modern position c. 7.000 years ago. The retreat, however, continued, and by 5.000  years before now the glacier front was east of the modern position, about 20 km east of the ice margin position in 1964 (Weidick et al. 1990).

Global cooling after 5.000 year before now resulted in significant growth of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the resulting advance of Jakobshavn Isbræ culminated around the year 1850, during the Little Ice Age (se frontal position in the figure below). From 1851 the calving glacier began retreating, and at the end of the 19th century the glacier front was about 10 km east of the maximum position reached in 1851 (Bauer et al. 1968). The seasonal fluctuations of the glacier terminus were recorded 1879-1880 by Hammer (1883), who also described local inuit legends that the glacier-filled embayment Tissarissoq (see figure below) formerly was ice-free and used as a hunting locality. If this is correct, open water probably extented east of the early 21st century glacier front position before the onset of the Little Ice Age (Weidick et al. 2004).

Jakobshavn Isbræ is the main outlet glacier from the Greenland Ice Sheet, draining ice from about 6.5% of the total area of the ice sheet, and producing 30-45 km3 icebergs per year. This corresponds to more than 10% of the total output of icebergs from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the Jakobshavn Isbræ is the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere. The glacier flow velocity is also high, typically 20-22 meters per day. It is likely that the iceberg which sank Titanic in 1912 may have been produced by Jakobshavn Isbræ.


Frontal positions of calving Jakobshavn Isbræ in the latter half of the 19th century, after reaching the maximum Little Ice Age position around 1850 (Bauer et al. 1968). Between 1851 and 1893 the glacier front retreated about 10 km. The early 21st century (2001) glacier front is seen about 14 km east of the 1893 position. According to inuit legends, the embayment Tissarissoq used to be glacier-free and was used as hunting area (Hammer 1883), most likely before before the Little Ice Age glacier advance (Weidick et al. 2004). Picture source: Google Earth.


A note describing the retreat of Jakobshavn Isbræ 1893-1942 can be found here. A description of the glacier retreat in the early 21st century is found here.

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1854: The Crimean War, beginning of systematic meteorological observations  

The Crimean War (1853–1856) was fought between Imperial Russia on one side and an alliance of France, the United Kingdom, the Kingdom of Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire on the other. The chain of events leading to Britain and France declaring war on Russia on 28 March 1854 can be traced to a fierce disagreement of whom was going to have "sovereign authority" in the Holy Land.

The fall of Sebastopol September 1855, after a year-long siege by the French and British fleets.


In April 1854 allied troops landed in the Crimea and besieged the city of Sebastopol, home of the Tsar's fleet. During the siege, in November 1854, a major part of the French-English fleet was destroyed in the Black Sea by an unexpected storm. By later collecting local weather reports, the track of this storm could be followed across Europe all the way to the Black Sea . The French astronomer Leverrier was then given the responsibility to investigate if it was possible to forecast such weather events in the future. With great difficulties, these developments lead to the first network of meteorological stations in France, sending information on local weather to a central weather office in Paris. From 1863 the first real daily weather maps showing pressure differences were produced for western Europe by this office. Within few years most nations in Europe and USA followed suit. By this, the time around 1870-1875 marks the beginning of widespread, systematic meteorological observations in Europe, USA, Greenland and Iceland.

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1876: The Merchant Shipping Act and the Plimsoll Sensation  

Ship in storm of the south coast of England around 1870 (left). The Plimsoll markings on ships; the long-awaited load line for different oceanographic conditions (centre). Samuel Plimsoll (right).


During the 19th century, British trade with the rest of the world was growing rapidly. The large number of ships being wrecked each year caused greater and greater concern. For example, in the year 1873-4, 411 ships sank around the British coast, with the loss of 506 lives. Between 1830 and 1900 about 70 percent of all sailing ships of the Tyne in England were lost a sea. During those same years one out of every five English mariners who embarked on a life at sea also died at sea (Jones 2006). Overloading and poor maintenance made some ships so dangerous that they became known as 'coffin ships', especially as gales and storms were frequent during the Little Ice Age.

By the 1870 Merchant Shipping Act in England sailors could be imprisoned for three months for breach of contract if they refused to board an unseaworthy ship once they had signed up for a voyage. Between 1870 and 1872, 1628 sailors were sent to jail in Great Britain for refusing to go to sea in ships they thought were unseaworthy.

In 1870, Samuel Plimsoll MP, who was a coal merchant, became interested in the subject. He began to write a book about the disastrous effects of overloading ships without respect to bad weather. When he began to investigate, Plimsoll found the problem was even worse than he had expected. He began to campaign in parliament with the aim of improving safety at sea. Many ordinary people became interested in his book and his campaign. In 1872, a Royal Commission on Un-seaworthy Ships was set up to look at evidence and recommend changes. Plimsoll was, however, defeated several times in parliament and ridiculed in public. Especially many ship owners were reluctant toward introducing regulations of ship loading.

Friday 10 February 1871 a storm blew up in the Channel and in the North Sea. Many ships went down because they were to heavy loaded to ride the waves, and many sailors lost their lives. There was a public outcry in Great Britain following this disaster. For Samuel Plimsoller (MP) this particular storm became the tipping point for public opinion.

On 12 August 1876, after years of negotiations in the English parliament a new Merchant Shipping Act was passed  with the Lord's amendments (Jones 2006). The Art had 45 clauses. No 26 was ground-breaking: it made a load line on every ship compulsory. Thereby the storm of 10 February 1871 and the long work by Samuel Plimsoller established the famous symbol, of a circle, twelve inches in diameter, with a line through the middle, which popularly took Plimsoll's name.

The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 made load lines compulsory, but the position of the line in the ship hull was not fixed by law until 1894. In 1906, foreign ships were also required to carry a load line if they visited British ports. Since then, the line has been known in the U.K. as the Plimsoll Line. To this day, it still carries the name of the MP who fought such a long struggle in parliament to win better safety conditions for ships crews.

Even in modern times, whenever controversies generating strong feelings arise, references are made and analogies drawn to the Plimsoll case.

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1879: The Tay Rail Bridge disaster in Scotland  

A deep depression with strong winds (Beaufort force 10-11) was passing across Scotland 28 December 1879. On the backside, the depression was accompanied by very strong W and NW winds. At 7:15 p.m. on the stormy evening the express train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was crossing the celebrated Tay Rail Bridge, shortly before stopping at the main railroad station in Dundee. Just at the train was passing the central spans of the bridge the whole bridge structure collapsed into the Firth of Tay, taking the whole train with it into the water below. All 75 people on the train lost their lives. The Tay Rail Bridge was completed just 19 months before (February 1878), had no less than 85 spans, and was with a total length of 3.5 km the longest bridge in the world at that time. Thomas Bouch was responsible for the design and construction, and was knighted at the successful completion of the bridge.

The Tai Rail Bridge disaster 28 December 1879, as documented by contemporary a contemporary newspaper. The old photograph to the right shows the central box-shaped section of the bridge lying on a sandbank in the river. The entire train, with the exception of the second-class carriage and the van, was contained within this section, explaining why nobody managed to escape drowning.


Today there is still speculation as to the exact cause for the disaster, even though the sheer force of the wind is seen as the fundamental cause (Burt 2004). One theory suggests that the bridge was not designed to withstand the strong winds experienced in the evening of 28 December 1879, while another theory suggests that the train actually was lifted by the winds like the wing of an aeroplane, thereby colliding with and fatally damaging vital parts of the bridge structure. More information on this storm-related disaster can be found by clicking here and here.


The new Tay Rail Bridge January 6th, 2008, looking SW. The old pier remains of the old bridge is seen below the modern bridge and provide a grim reminder of the 1879 disaster.


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1879-1881: USS Jeannette sails for the North Pole  

USS Jeannette (left). Map showing the trek to the Siberian coast from the point where USS Jeannette was crushed by ice (centre). Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong, USN (right).


The 43 m long USS Jeannette was originally a gunboat (HMS Pandora) in the British Royal Navy. In 1878 it was purchased by the owner of the New York Herald (James Gordon Bennett, Jr.), and renamed Jeannette. Bennett was interested in the Arctic and the still existing notion of the ice-free central part of the Arctic Ocean. He obtained the cooperation and assistance of the US government for an expedition to the North Pole through the Bering Strait , using Jeannette.

The Jeannette was modified and massively reinforced to allow her to navigate in the Arctic pack ice. Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong, USN, who had considerable Arctic experience, was given the command. The crew consisted of 30 officers and men and 3 civilians. The ship contained the latest in scientific equipment; and, in addition to reaching the Pole through Bering Strait, scientific observation ranked high among the expedition's list of goals.

Bound for the North Pole, Jeannette departed San Francisco July 8, 1879. Early September she was caught in the pack ice near Wrangel Island, north of Sibiria. For the next 21 months she drifted with the ice to the northwest, slowly approaching the North Pole, but without encountering an ice-free ocean.

On 12 June 1881 the sea ice began crushing the ship, forcing DeLong and his men to unload provisions and equipment onto the ice pack. USS Jeannette sank the following morning. The expedition then started off for the Lena Delta on the Siberian mainland, hauling three boats and supplies. Mid September they reached open water and sailed toward the mainland. A storm blew up and one of the boats capsized and sank. The other two, commanded by DeLong and his Chief Engineer G.W. Melville survived the storm and landed at separated points on the coast of the Lena Delta.

The two seperated parties began the long march inland over the swampy and half-frozen delta, hoping to find settlements. One by one, however, members of DeLong's group died from starvation and exposure. Finally DeLong sent his two strongest men ahead alone for help. They eventually managed to find a settlement, but DeLong and the remaining men died before rescue arrived. The other group under Melville was more lucky and relatively rapid found a native village on the other side of the delta and were all rescued.

In the summer of 1884 wreckage from the Jeannette was found on sea ice floes near the southern end of Greenland . This was perhaps one of the most important scientific outcomes of the Jeannette expedition, and overnight made the notion of the ice-free central part of the Arctic Ocean impossible. Had the ocean not been entirely covered by ice, the wreckage would have sunk long time before reaching southern Greenland. This new insight prompted the Norwegian scientist Fridtjof Nansen to hypothesize that the ice of the Arctic Ocean was in constant motion from the Siberian coast towards East Greenland . To test this hypothesis, Nansen planned the famous Fram expedition, with drift across the Arctic Ocean .

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1883: The Krakatau volcanic eruption  

The explosive Krakatau eruption in Indonesia 27 May 1883 released huge amounts of ash into the atmosphere, giving rise to spectacular sunrise and sunset phenomena for a couple of years. Several painters have recorded this effect in their artwork.


Painting of the Krakatau eruption 27 May 1883 (left). Oil painting 'Sunset' by Thames 23 Nobember 1883 (centre). The painting 'Skrik' (the Scream) 1893 by Edvard Munch (right). The dramatic skyline in this painting is thought to have been inspired by the global optical effects caused by the 1883 Krakatau eruption as seen over Oslofjord in the years thereafter.


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