Arctic dimension of German politics: National approach and aspects of international cooperation

Vyatkin Kirill Sergeyevich — Ph.D., Amber Bridge Fund, Head of the Berlin office. 

Recently Germany has been more clearly indicating growing interest towards the Arctic region. It is determined by a number of political and economic processes in the modern world, occurring against lack of study of the dynamics of climate changes on the planet. The article analyzes the most important factors specifying the interests of Germany in the Arctic; it examines the potential opportunities and a set of tools at the disposal of German policy to achieve its goals; it assesses the nature and degree of involvement of Germany in the process of international cooperation in the Arctic area. Special attention is given to forecasts of further development of Germany in the Arctic project, including international development.


As it is known, Germany is among the countries that do not have direct access to the coast of the Arctic Ocean and, therefore, does not have legal rights to the independent development of the Arctic shelf. Its location is not close to the Arctic Circle and doesn’t have sovereign territories in the Arctic[1].

However, in November 2013, Federal Republic of Germany adopted a document entitled “Guidelines for German policy in the Arctic” [4], which largely explains the renewed interest of Germany to the region.


First of all, like most other countries outside the region, the Arctic attracts Germany with its immense hydrocarbon reserves. According to some foreign estimates (which, however, generally refer to the US Geological Survey data [6]), it may contain about a quarter of undiscovered deposits of hydrocarbons in the world. While the proportion of the Arctic in global oil resources is relatively small (less than 7 percent), the amount of gas resources is considered to be much more significant – about 25 percent or more[2].

As an alternative to nuclear power (and the trip of the last reactor is scheduled to 2022) Germany today is focusing on priority development of the so-called “renewable” energy sources – solar, wind, biological and so on. So far, however, even optimistic adherents of “green energy” provide long-term forecasts. So it seems clear that in the short and medium term Germany is likely to increase the consumption of traditional energy resources – oil, gas and coal. Therefore no wonder that the Arctic hydrocarbon reserves and the ways of its transportation are in the center of attention of political Berlin.

Secondly, the Arctic region possesses (again, mostly presumably) considerable reserves of rare metals, minerals, ores and other raw materials of strategic importance. This category, in particular, includes estimated deposit apatite, nickel, cobalt, copper, tungsten, titanium, chromium, manganese, platinum group metals, tin, mercury, gold, silver, diamond and so on. An important feature of a number of known nickel deposits is integrated ore composition, allowing – in the presence of appropriate technology, that Germany has – simultaneously remove additional amount of copper, platinum group of metals, gold, silver, selenium and tellurium. It dramatically increases the value of the ore, despite the high cost of extraction and production in the Arctic Circle [1, Volume 1, p. 126].

Thirdly, the Arctic attracts Germany, as well as other European countries, with its biological resources. The Arctic Ocean is the habitat to more than four hundred unique species of fish and animals. It is home of important species for European fisheries, namely, herring, cod, salmon, flatfish and others.

Fourthly, the Arctic is the area of ​​emerging international transport corridors. In case positive forecasts are right (what happens sometimes), one can expect a lot of new opportunities for further development. When it comes to sea routes, one obviously means the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs near the Arctic coast of Russia, and the so-called Northwest Passage, located along the northern coast of Canada. Assuming the continuation of melting ice NSR is likely to become a major transport artery of world importance that will significantly reduce the shipping routes between Europe and Asia-Pacific region[3].

Finally, fifthly, Germany, and many other countries of the world are concerned about global climate change, which is believed to have a direct impact on the environment, economic activities, public health. That is why the monitoring of the climatic situation in the Arctic is of primary importance for the scientific community of Germany. For these purposes the country has already created and successfully launched a number of institutions involved in research in polar regions, including environmental monitoring in the Arctic and Antarctica.


The mechanism of the formation and implementation of the Arctic policy in Germany is quite efficient. Traditionally, the main coordinating role in this important political direction is done by the Office of the Federal Chancellor. Four departments – Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Education and Research and Ministry of Economy and Energy are responsible for practical implementation of the basic provisions of the above-mentioned political strategy.

The lead operator for the preparation and conduct of research studies in various regions, including the Arctic region, is the Federal Agency for Geosciences and Mineral Resources (BGR), which is subordinated to the Ministry of Economy and Energy.

One of the main activities of the agency in the Arctic is the study of geodynamic processes in the coastal regions of the Arctic water areas. In this regard, since 1992 the agency has been implementing a multi-year international program CASE (Circum-Arctic Structural Events) [7]. During the reporting period over 15 major research (with a focus on geological and geophysical surveys) expeditions to Svalbard, northern Greenland, the Canadian Arctic and polar regions of Siberia were organized within the program[4].

Since all lands in the Arctic area (ie located to the north of the 66th latitude), as well as adjacent offshore areas are under the territorial sovereignty of well-known five states – members of the Arctic Council, German authorities strictly and consistently adhere to the principle of prior consultation with the countries concerning their programs of scientific and practical studies, which are usually held on the terms of cooperation.

Thus, BGR works on Svalbard are conducted in cooperation with the Norwegian Polar Institute. With respect to Greenland, which is under the sovereignty of Denmark, BGR cooperates with the Geological Service of Greenland in Copenhagen. Project in Canada is implemented within a multi-year program of scientific and technical cooperation (WTZ) between two countries. The main partners from the Canadian side are the Geological Service of Canada and the University of Laval / Quebec. The partners of BGR in the Urals in the frame of the same program[5]are institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow and Syktyvkar (Komi Republic).

“Siberian” part of the project is a priority for BGR. Among its most important exploratory tasks in the Arctic region, in particular, are:

-              a range of issues related to the possible continental extension and access mid-ocean ridge of the Arctic Ocean on the mainland of Siberia;

-              potential of Laptev Sea bed in terms of mineral (especially hydrocarbon) resources;

-              potential of polar Urals in terms of chromite and platinum group elements[6];

-              the phenomenon of permafrost and its resource potential; dynamics in this sector and its impact on the processes of climate change on the planet[7].

Thus, in 2001-2003 in the framework of the aforementioned program for scientific and technical cooperation (WTZ) with Russian Federation BGR implemented the project PURE (Polar Urals Expedition), by carrying out three geological expeditions to polar Urals. Long-awaited expedition to New Siberian islands[8] organized in 2011 as part of the program CASE-13 was considered a great success of BGR. The first phase associated with marine geophysical work in Laptev Sea, was finished in the mid-1990s (in cooperation with Murmansk Institute Sevmorneftegeofizika).

The next stage (project CASE-3, 1998), aimed at carrying out complementary geological studies on land, ended in a relative failure. It is essential that the year of default was not the best for polar research in Russia. Extremely unfavorable weather conditions in that year, huge problems in logistics, supply and financial support caused the premature cessation of work.

The subsequent adjustment of the political and economic course of our country, fundamental change in approach towards the Arctic allowed to provide favorable conditions for mutually beneficial international cooperation. The result of intensive and fruitful cooperation between BGR and a number of Russian institutions (the main partner – A.P. Karpinsky Russian Geological Research Institute in St. Petersburg) was the success of obtaining unique scientific data during the international expedition CASE-13 in 2011. Scientists not only from Russia and Germany, but also from France, Britain, Italy and Sweden took part in that project.

Starting from 2015 German Ministry for Education and Research is implementing the third framework program “Research for Sustainable Development» (FONA-3). The Arctic region is one of the key regions of the studies held in the framework of this program. Annually the Ministry allocates an average of about 20 million euros to support research projects in the Arctic. In general, Germany invests around 200 million euros per year in polar and marine research [8].

Among the research institutions of Germany dealing with Arctic issues, the main is undoubtedly Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), located in the north of Germany in Bremerhaven town. The Institute is one of 18 major research centers united in the Helmholtz Society. It has about 780 employees, including 450 scientists, employed on a permanent basis, what means a lot for the German standards. The annual budget of the institute amounts to 60 million euros. 90% of the funding comes from the Ministry of Education and Research.

AWI Institute has three departments:

-              Research Center in Potsdam

-              Biological Institute Helgoland[9]

-              Wadden Seastation Sylt [10]

In 1992 in accordance with the recommendations of the Scientific Council of the federal government, a research unit of the Institute AWI was opened in Potsdam in order to preserve the practices and scientific potential of the former GDR in geophysics and polar research. Today its main activities are focused on geophysical surveys in regions of permafrost, as well as experimental studies of atmospheric processes in the polar regions (primarily in areas of permafrost in Siberia and Svalbard). Scientists from “climate science»[11] department explore physical and chemical processes in the system “ocean – ice – atmosphere” and its importance for the development of the global climate. Working groups are engaged in studies of regional and large-scale circulation system and physical and chemical processes in the atmosphere. Current research in this area covers various topics, including influence of clouds and sea ice in the energy exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, circulation of water masses in polar regions, study of natural climate change and modeling of atmospheric circulation in the Arctic.

A distinctive feature of the Research Center in Potsdam is a close scientific and practical cooperation with the university centers in Brandenburg state, and a number of other federal states. Well-organized system of scientific exchange and cooperation with partners in the universities of Berlin (Technical, Free, Humboldt), Potsdam (University of Brandenburg), Erlangen (Bavaria), Hamburg, Bremen, Kiel (Schleswig-Holstein), Trier (North Rhine-Westphalia) is designed to stimulate the flow of new knowledge and to ensure continuity, including personnel, in the area of ​​polar research.

The Research Center is focused also on two research areas – «Earth Science» and «Biological sciences». Within «Earth Science» scientists reconstruct changes that have taken place in the past. Scientists from Bremerhaven, Potsdam and Sylt study the effect of occurring earlier processes on the climate development. They study the structure of oceanic sediments, surface deposits, polar ice caps. In particular, they analyze composition and distribution of marine sediments, material and energy flows in areas of permafrost and changes in the structure of the crust and polar ice sheets.

«Biological sciences» (which is the main focus of research scientists from Biological Institute Helgoland) cover environmental, physiological and ecotoxicological issues. Particular attention is paid to the study of processes in offshore and coastal zone of the North Sea. Research subjects include reaction of cells, organisms, populations and communities to external influence and organization and dynamics of populations, communities and ecosystems.

Scientists from AWI Institute often conduct research in the high seas or directly in the ice of Arctic and Antarctica. They have stations AWIPEV[12]  (Svalbard, 79 ° N) and “Samoylovsky” (island Samoylovsky in the delta of the Lena River, 72 ° N).

As of 1998 island Samoylovsky locates a base for field research. In 2013 it was completely renovated to become a modern well-equipped Arctic research station. Initially the main organizers were AWI Institute from German side and Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute of Roshydromet (at the federal level) and Melnikov Permafrost Institute of the Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences (at regional level) from Russian side. Currently the station is on the balance of the Institute of Petroleum-Gas Geology and Geophysics of the Siberian Branch of the RAS (Novosibirsk) and is a part of the Arctic Centre, specially created in the institute. It should be emphasized that the whole station was built and equipped with Russian assets, the German side only finances the work of their representatives.

«Experimental Station on island Samoylovsky» is one of three projects (two others – «Global change in the seas of Eurasian Arctic shelf: frontal zones and polynyas in the Laptev Sea» and «Otto Schmidt Laboratory for Polar and Marine Research (OSHL)»), which are part of a large-scale Russian-German program «Laptev Sea System». In turn, the project «Laptev Sea System» is a branch of the Russian-German program «Trans-system of the Arctic Ocean» (Transdrift) and can rightly be regarded as «longevity» and one of the most successful ventures in the history of Russian-German joint research in high latitudes of Arctic.

In addition, Institute AWI incorporates year-round functioning German station Neumayer-3 (71 ° S) as well as Kohnen Station (75 ° S) and laboratory Dallman (68 ° S) in Antarctica. The stations in Arctic and Antarctic carry out meteorological and geophysical measurements all year round.

The main mobile research platform is icebreaker «Polarstern» («Polar Star», in fact being the only icebreaker in Germany)[13]. At the same time it carries out a close international cooperation – about a quarter of the members of the expedition on «Polarstern» are traditionally foreign researchers. In addition, the Institute operates five research vessels to work in temperate latitudes, and two polar aircrafts Polar 5 and Polar 6.

In addition to fundamental and applied scientific research institute AWI also provides coordination and advisory services. Particular attention is paid to biological monitoring, science and technology, infrastructure and logistics support for polar research in Germany, as well as advising the Government of Germany.

In April 2015 a delegation of German politicians and scientists led by the Minister for Education and Research Johanna Vank visited Svalbard. The program of the visit included a visit of a number of German and international research centers.

One of the aims of the visit was a visit to the Norwegian settlement of Ny-Alesund, which is the world’s most northern permanent public settlement. Here is located the world’s most northern permanent civil research station. Researchers from Norway (who has administrative control over then territory), Germany, France and China permanently work there. On a temporary basis the station is visited by scientists from Italy, Britain, Netherlands and Japan. In addition, the politicians got acquainted with the activities of the research station of the Institute AWI, which now operates in a joint German-French-format (AWIPEV).

In general we can say that polar research in Germany is based on an extensive network of public and private institutions that coordinate financial, scientific and practical activities in this area. Ministry of Economy and Energy and Ministry of Education and Research provide primarily institutional support. In addition, Ministry of Education and Research conducts targeted support of research projects in the Arctic.

Since the beginning of the 1990s the German Research Foundation (DFG)[14]actively supports polar research. In 1992 the Presidium of the company established the Special Committee SCAR / IASC (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research / International Arctic Science Committee), whose tasks include planning and coordination of scientific and practical activities of German universities and university centers with institute AWI and relevant government departments in the field of polar research. Currently, with the support of DFG on the basis of a number of German universities functions an interdisciplinary program of comparative research in Antarctica and Arctic (in 2012 the program has been extended until 2018).

Some more specialized projects for the Arctic are conducted with the participation of the institutions of Max Planck Society, Leibniz Association. Finally, the most important instrument in terms of interdisciplinary coordination and cooperation is the German Society of Polar Research (DGP) that brings together representatives of various scientific disciplines.


Obviously, in the foreseeable future Germany will continue the policy of further strengthening of “indirect voting rights” in its Arctic affairs, primarily relying on their undoubted achievements in the field of research and scientific practice. With good expertise in qualified scientific works, as well as solid financial, technical and technological potential for further development, Germany intends to use expert assessments to influence political decision-making, relating to the Arctic.

In this regard, Germany, for example, appreciates the opportunities for cooperation in the framework of the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC). Secretariat of the Committee is based in the branch of the Institute AWI in Potsdam, and the Executive Secretary of it is the authoritative German expert on Arctic F. Rahold. IASC members are national scientific organizations. Germany is represented by the aforementioned German Research Foundation DFG.

Executive Director of the International Association on permafrost (IPA) is held by a German (an employee of the Institute AWI K. Schollen). At the same time, Germany has been active in the European Polar Board (European Polar Board). As a division of the European Science Foundation (European Science Foundation, ESF), it is an important platform for the coordination of polar research between interested countries – EU members. The German experience in the field of polar research has formed the basis of the relevant areas within the next 8-th EU program for research, covering the period 2014-2020.[15]

The specificity of the German Arctic strategy lies in the emphasis on the environmental consequences of industrial development in the Arctic. If desired, one can discern the intention of the international community to form a negative attitude towards any attempt to operate Arctic resources without the use of special “green” technologies. In an effort to ensure high standards of environmental safety as international standards, Berlin, obviously is trying to secure for its own (and European) companies more favorable conditions for the promotion to the Arctic.

At the same time it should be noted, that Germany is quite realistic regarding its competitive opportunities in several areas. For example, Germany so far has only one relatively large oil and gas company operating on an international scale – Wintershall. Concerning the Arctic, its strategic focus is the development of offshore fields in Norway.

However, the company has been recently gradually consolidating its position as one of the largest producers of gas on the Norwegian continental shelf. A subsidiary of the BASF concern has successfully established itself as an integrated enterprise in the field of exploration and production. One of the backgrounds of its growth is its rich portfolio of licenses. Wintershall is one of the largest license holders on the Norwegian continental shelf: it has about 50 licenses, over half of which endows it with the rights of the operator works. Most recently, in January 2015, the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy of Norway issued the company 8 new licenses, giving great prospects. Yet it must be acknowledged that the scope of its activities is not up to a level comparable with world known giants of oil and gas industry.

Obviously, in the foreseeable future Germany will stop its Arctic ambitions by concentrating on production of renewable resources (fish and seafood) as well as on the exploitation of the Northern Sea Route[16]. In this regard, it would be appropriate to recall that Germany has the largest fleet of containerships in the world, therefore it should be interested in the development of new transport communications. Besides, it is an additional opportunity for the development of the national shipbuilding industry. Thus, in December 2012, the Federal Agency of Sea and River Transport of Russia and the German company «Nordic Yards» signed a state contract for the construction of two multipurpose salvage vessels with capacity of 7 MW, designed to work in the Russian Arctic. The total amount of orders amounted to 150 mln Eur. The ships were transferred to the Russian side in time and became part of its fleet at the beginning of the year[17].

Germany is likely to leave the development of the access to the region’s energy resources to its partners – Norway and Russia. Berlin is satisfied with the role of the distributor of Russian raw materials on the world market.

Most of German experts are rather skeptic regarding the thesis that the “Arctic is growing potential conflict,” and that predicted by some researchers conflicts in the Arctic will be conflicts over access to hydrocarbon resources. [2] The extent of the reserves in the region, mostly widespread in pseudo-scientific circles, is greatly exaggerated. German experts (in particular, from BGR) are more careful about such estimations. According to them, data on stocks, which are now provided by different sources, are very approximate – primarily due to poor knowledge of the region. For the time being it’s mostly forecasts. Proved reserves are significantly low[18].

It is also noted that in order to assess the potential for conflict in the northern polar regions it is important, that almost all estimated hydrocarbon reserves of the Arctic are concentrated in the exclusive economic zones of coastal States, ie within their undisputed jurisdiction. The central part of the Arctic Ocean, which could theoretically meet claims of coastal states over the continental shelf, is of little promise in search for hydrocarbon resources[19].

In other words, there is simply no reason for the emergence of a new «arms race» in the region[20]. It is significant that the participants of the last annual Security Conference in Munich (February 2015) did not discuss the current situation and its development in the Arctic – apparently due to lack of reasonable forecast expectations for the foreseeable future acute conflict situations in the region.

It entirely corresponds to the estimates from defense authorities of Germany. For example, published in July 2014 analytical study «Climate Change and Security in the Arctic after 2014″ prepared by planning department of Bundeswehr concludes that a widespread and military interstate conflict in the Far North is unlikely to happen. Even in the context of the ongoing melting of ice the Arctic will remain quite stable region for Germany, having nevertheless increasing economic and environmental value. In light of this, German security policy will primarily face the task of a comprehensive and long-term-oriented monitoring of the situation in the region [3, S.24]. For the process to be monitored and analysed one can attribute, for example, political dynamics associated with the autonomy of Greenland (which, in turn, could lead to the transformation of the «Arctic» status of Denmark), or increased political activity in the Arctic Council of «observers» among Asian countries (mainly China and Japan).

Sharing the opinion of the majority of Russian, Norwegian, Canadian experts, German experts say that today the military are able to fully ensure the safety and protection for civilian use such a wayward region as Arctic. However, they note that there is currently no need for additional support of Arctic forces of German partners in NATO with forces and means of Bundeswehr. Improving capacity and operational capabilities of German armed forces in Arctic is neither today nor in foreseeable future a priority of the development [3, S.25].



List of References

  1. Аrkticheskij region: problemy mezhdunarodnogo sotrudnichestva. Khrestomatiya v 3-х tt. Izdatelstvo RSMD. М., 2013.
  2. Corinna Röver, Katrin Ridder-Strolis, «Nachhaltigkeit in der Arktis: Prämissen, Probleme und Potentiale». Länderberichte der Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. Oktober 2014.
  3. Klimawandel und Sicherheit in der Arktis nach 2014. Hat die friedliche und kooperative internationale Arktispolitik eine langfristige Zukunft? Planungsamt der Bundeswehr, Dezernat Zukunftsanalyse. Juli 2014.
  4. Leitlinien deutscher Arktispolitik. Verantwortung übernehmen, Chancen nutzen. Auswärtiges Amt, November 2013.
  5. Nichtstaatliche Konflikte in Räumen begrenzter Staatlichkeit. Planungsamt der Bundeswehr, Dezernat Zukunftsanalyse. Future Study 2012.
  6. United States Geological Survey. URL:
  7. Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe. URL:

Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung. URL:


[1] Perhaps Svalbard archipelago may be a specific exception, the territory of which is under sovereignty of Norway. Since 1925 Germany is a party to the Paris Treaty on Spitsbergen of 1920, which provides that parties equal rights to exploit natural resources of Svalbard and its territorial waters

[2]See f.e.: or


[3] With a relatively favorable ice and weather conditions taking NSR from the German Hamburg to Japanese Yokohama could make only about 6,600 nautical miles, while through Suez Canal – 11 400 miles. Accordingly, the transportation time of cargo could be reduced to 40%. [5,S.26].

[4] Indeed, regions (and hence organizations) of United States are not present in this list.

[5] It is based on an agreement on scientific and technical cooperation (WTZ), which was signed by Germany and Soviet Union in 1987, subsequently was subject to repeated amendments and additions, in particular, during German-Russian intergovernmental consultations in July 2009.

[6] This area is of particular interest to Russia because after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it lost access to the largest in the USSR deposits of chrome ore in Kazakhstan.

[7] In this case, the Germans seem to be “engaged” in a very promising process. The fact is that as long as the Americans are developing shale gas, the world begins to develop a much more substantial reserves of “blue fuel”, which, in compressed form – so-called gas hydrates – are stored in the permafrost on the seabed and on land. According to the Russian Ministry of Energy (2013), reserves of gas hydrates are more than twice of the total reserves of shale and conventional natural gas. Russia has large deposits of natural hydrates found in areas of permafrost in Yakutia and West Siberia. Large reserves are discovered on the Sakhalin shelf in the Okhotskoye Sea (in particular in the area of ​​the east coast), and the Kuril Islands (which, by the way, is so eager to get Japan).

[8] New Siberian Islands – Russian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, located between the Laptev Sea and East Siberian Sea.

[9] Helgoland – German-owned archipelago located in the Bay of Heligoland in the south-east of the North Sea.

[10] Sylt – Germany’s largest island in the North Sea, which is part of the waters of the Wadden Sea; since 1927 the island connected to the mainland by a causeway.

[11] This area is part of one of the six areas of basic research, on which Helmholtz Societyis concentrated: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Aeronautics, Space and Transport, Key Technologies, Structure of Matter.

[12] The base is named after Carl Koldewey, in honour of the head of the first German polar expedition in 1868. It was founded in Germany in August 1991 as a base of the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI), and in 2003 it merged with the base of the French Institute Paul Emile Victor (IPEV).

[13]The construction of the new multi-polar vessel, which should replace the current ship carrying “scientific watch” since 1983 is planned by the end of 2019.

[14] The Foundation is the central organization for promotion of research in Germany. It operates on the principles of self-government and is organized on the basis of civil law. Its main task is research funding of universities and public research institutions of Germany. The Foundation itself is financed mainly at the expense of federal and state governments.


[16] It should, however, added that in these areas Germany prefers cautious forecasts. For example, regarding the NSR it is noted that severe weather conditions and unpredictable ice conditions will remain for the foreseeable future dependence of marine transportation vessels of icebreakers and, most importantly, trained personnel, what in financial terms largely eliminates the possible gains from reducing the distance and travel time. Therefore transarctic container transport (especially those which are carried out on an urgent basis “just-in-time”) are not a short thing of the future.

Equally uncertain (and in fact, simply unexplored) remain assessments as to whether the result of the temporary exemption of ocean space from ice is to expand commercial fish habitat and thus will lead to an increase in their populations.

[17]Being a class of Icebreaker 6, the vessels may conduct rescue operations in difficult conditions. They can be used for icebreaking operations in port and at sea in the thickness of the ice up to 1 meter, extinguish fires on floating objects and coastal oil spill.

[18]F.e., opinion of expert of BGRG.Elsner in:

[19]Expert BGRK. Reihert, the same source.

[20] In particular, experts of authoritative German Foundation for Science and Policy, acting as a leading consulting center for the government of Germany, followed in their assessments this line. See:

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