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#504246 - 05/15/15 04:52 AM El Niño 2015  
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A Rare Mid-Year El Niño Event Is Strengthening

The robust El Niño event anticipated for more than a year is finally coming to fruition, according to the latest observations and forecasts. NOAA's latest monthly analysis, issued on Thursday morning, continues the El Niño Advisory already in effect and calls for a 90% chance of El Niño conditions persisting through the summer, with a greater-than-80% chance they will continue through the end of 2015. These are the highest probabilities yet for the current event, and a sign of increased forecaster confidence--despite the fact that we're in northern spring, the very time when El Niño outlooks are most uncertain.

Figure 1. A schematic showing the processes involved in El Niño. The trade winds shown by the arrow are weaker at this point than during La Niña or neutral conditions; at certain times and at some locations, they may even reverse, blowing from west to east. For a full explanation of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, including additional graphics, see the website published by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Image credit: BOM.

Forecasters and computer models alike have been confounded by this event. In a classic El Niño, the ocean and atmosphere are synchronized in a mutually reinforcing pattern that pushes warm sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) and thunderstorm activity along the equator eastward for thousands of miles, from Indonesia toward South America (see Figure 1). Sometimes the atmosphere doesn't respond to a "kick" from the ocean, and an embryonic El Niño fails to develop. This was the case last spring, when a powerful oceanic Kelvin wave (a broad, shallow, slow-moving impulse) pushed warm water east across the Pacific tropics. Keying off this wave, many of the global models used in El Niño prediction called for a moderate or even strong El Niño by the fall of 2014. However, the normal east-to-west trade winds never reversed, which helped torpedo the needed ocean-atmosphere synchrony. The ocean tried again last fall with another Kelvin wave, but again the atmosphere failed to respond, and the SST warming disappeared after a few weeks.

Figure 2. Recent weekly departures from normal across the four tropical Pacific regions (top map) that are regularly monitored for signs of El Niño and La Niña. Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

This time, things appear to be different: SSTs have warmed for the last several months, and more recently, trade winds have weakened. As of Monday, the weekly-averaged SSTs over the four regions monitored for El Niño were all at least 1.0°C above average (see Figure 2, right). If the values for all four regions can sustain this feat throughout the next month, it'll be the first time this has happened since November 1997, during the strongest El Niño event of the 20th century. Just as significant, the persistently warmer-than-normal SSTs over the western tropical Pacific have now cooled, which helps support the reversal of trade winds so critical to El Niño. The current SST map now resembles a more textbook-like El Niño signature (see Figure 3, below), and there is every indication that the ocean-atmosphere coupling will now continue to grow.

An event out of season
As far as the eastern tropical Pacific goes, it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. El Niño--"the Christ child" in Spanish--gets its name from its tendency to bring above-average SSTs to the coasts of Peru and Ecuador around Christmastime. The climatology of the eastern Pacific tends to support El Niño and La Niña development during the northern autumn, maximum strength in the winter, and decay in the spring. The current event is thus bucking climatology as it continues into northern spring. The three-month departure from average in the Niño3.4 region reached the El Niño threshold of +0.5°C in Oct-Nov-Jan 2014-15, and it's hovered in the weak range (+0.5 to +1.0°C] ever since, with a value of +0.6°C for Feb-Mar-Apr 2015. Only 12 of the 65 prior years in the historical database of El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events have seen a value of at least +0.5°C during the Feb-Mar-Apr period. Water temperatures in the Niño3.4 region are normally at their warmest in May, so the current warm anomaly is leading to especially toasty SSTs of around 29°C (84°F). If this El Niño event does intensify, as models strongly suggest it will (see below), it'll be one for the record books. There are no analogs in the database for a weak event in northern winter that becomes a stronger event by summer. Persisting into northern fall will also greatly raise the odds of this becoming a rare two-year event. In every case since at least 1950 when El Niño conditions were present by Jul-Aug-Sep, the event continued into the start of the next calendar year. Two-year El Niños are more unusual than two-year La Niñas, but they do happen, as in 1968-1970 and 1986-1988. See the new blog by Emily Becker for more on the unusual timing of this event.

Figure 3. Departures from normal for sea-surface temperatures as measured on May 13, 2015. The warmer-than-average belt across the central and eastern tropical Pacific is characteristic of El Niño. Image credit:

Northern spring is an especially difficult time to predict El Niño evolution. Computer-model skill at predicting ENSO is at its lowest then, in part because of reduced east-west gradients in SSTs across the tropical Pacific, but also due to factors that have yet to be fully understood. "The Spring Barrier is the climate forecaster’s equivalent of mayhem," says Michelle L'Heureux in an excellent discussion of what forecasters often call the "spring predictability barrier." Skill does begin to improve for forecasts produced in May, according to L'Heureux, so we can begin placing more trust in the 2015-16 El Niño predictions from this point onward--although L'Heureux notes that even model runs produced in August still miss about a quarter of the winter variability in ENSO.

How strong will it get?
This week's Niño3.4 SST anomaly of +1.0°C is at the threshold of a moderate-strength event. Another 0.5°C would push the event into the strong range, which was last observed in late 2009 and early 2010. Klaus Wolter (NOAA Earth Systems Laboratory) has devised a Multivariate ENSO Index (MEI) that uses multiple indicators to diagnose El Niño and La Niña. Last year's event briefly nudged into Wolter's "strong" category (defined as the top 10% of events) before subsiding. The MEI is now again at the threshold of "strong," and a statistical model recently run by Wolter finds a 44% chance that strong conditions will be in place during Aug-Sep 2015, the time of year when this statistical model is most accurate. "We have had some pretty unusual (non-persistent) behavior of the ENSO-system in the last four years that was anticipated better than by flipping a coin, especially last year, but certainly not perfectly," said Wolter in an email update.

Figure 4. Projected values of the Niño3.4 departure from average by September, based on ensemble averages from a variety of global ocean-atmosphere models (listed along left-hand side). The La Niña and El Niño thresholds indicated by the shading on this graphic are 0.8°C, the values used in Australia. The comparable threshold used by NOAA is 0.5°C, because U.S. impacts can occur with smaller departures from average. Image credit: Australia Bureau of Meteorology.

The dynamical models run at various centers around the world to predict ENSO are now unanimous in keeping El Niño going into northern autumn. The values shown in Figure 4 (above) are ensemble averages for each model, which means they smooth out the range of outcomes depicted by multiple runs of the same model. (Each run has slight differences in its starting point, to account for features too small to be observed and the natural variations that result). Within each ensemble, there's a wide range of outcomes projected by autumn 2015, from a borderline El Niño to much more extreme values. Figure 5 (below) includes both the ensemble average and the individual members for the seven models in the North American Multi-Model Ensemble. A number of individual model runs push the Niño3.4 index well above +2.5°C over the next few months, and the entire NMME average is around +2.2°C for November and December. By comparison, the highest three-month departure observed in the entire 65-year NOAA database is +2.4°C (Nov-Dec-Jan 1997-98).

Now is a very good time to keep in mind that global models tend to hyperventilate a bit when it comes to strong ENSO events. "This is because the El Niño events are too shallow in the models," says Kevin Trenberth (National Center for Atmospheric Research). "They don't have as much ocean heat content engaged, so there is more of a surface signal." As for the stark variation among individual model runs, it may be due to the spring predictability barrier, as well as the result of another very powerful Kelvin wave and a strong westerly wind burst now traversing the Pacific. Models can easily predict a strengthening of El Niño conditions over the next several months as these features continue eastward, but it's tougher for the models to discern exactly what will happen after the Kelvin wave reaches South America. Trenberth points to the ocean-atmosphere coupling known as the Bjerknes feedback mechanism: "What happens after this Kelvin wave response is all over the place. This El Niño is being fought by the annual cycle, which tries to make SSTs cold by Sept-Oct.  That tendency keeps the warmest waters back near the International Date Line and cuts off the Bjerknes feedback.  If the SSTs develop to be big enough to overcome the annual cycle tendencies, then the Bjerknes feedback can kick in."

Figure 5. Projected evolution of Niño3.4 temperatures from members of the North American Mutli-Model Ensemble (members listed at top left). Dashed lines denote individual model runs; solid lines denote ensemble averages for each model. Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

What can we expect this summer?
Because it's quite rare to have intensifying El Niño conditions at this time of year, it's difficult to glean a confident signal from past events on how El Niño might affect U.S. summer weather. The global effects of El Niño arise from a shifting of showers and thunderstorms into the central and eastern tropical Pacific, which causes a reverberating sequence of atmospheric waves that tend to enhance precipitation in some areas and reduce it in others. In midlatitudes, these relationships, called teleconnections, are usually strongest in the winter hemisphere; for example, Australia often falls into drought when El Niño is developing in Jun-Jul-Aug (see Figure 6). If a strong El Niño does develop and persists into northern winter, the likely U.S. impacts would be more clear-cut, including wetter-than-average conditions across the southern half of the country, from California through Texas to Florida. This month could be seen as a sneak preview of sorts, with soggy conditions prevalent across the central and southern Plains and two unusually-wet-for-May systems reaching southern California, one last weekend and another now on its way. There is some hope for drought relief in the Golden State, given that the odds of an wetter-than-normal California rise sharply for the strongest El Niño events, but by no means would a wet winter be guaranteed. The strong El Niño of 1987-88 (which happened to be the second year of a two-year event) produced a drier-than-average winter from California to Washington.

Given that El Niño tends to suppress hurricane formation in the North Atlantic, the odds of a quiet season in that basin are growing by the month. However, a season with few storms doesn't necessarily translate into a low-impact year: the anemic 1992 season included the catastrophic Hurricane Andrew. And it's possible (though unlikely) to have a busy Atlantic hurricane season even during El Niño. Right in the middle of the weak-to-moderate two-year El Niño event of 1968-70, the Atlantic produced its most active season in 36 years, with a total of 18 named storms, 12 hurricanes, and 5 major hurricanes--including the horrific Hurricane Camille.

Figure 6. Global ENSO teleconnections (seasonal tendencies linked to El Niño and La Niña) for northern summer (June - August). Image credit: NOAA.

#506659 - 08/14/15 04:23 AM Re: El Niño 2015 [Re: Marty]  
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NOAA: Major El Niño Still on Track

In its latest monthly outlook, issued on Thursday (see PDF), NOAA continues to project that the ongoing El Niño event, already close to record strength for August, will at least approach the highest overall strength observed at any time of year since 1950. As of last week (see PDF), sea-surface temperatures across a key part of the eastern tropical Pacific called Niño3.4 were running 1.9°C above the long-term average for this time of year. This month’s Niño3.4 values could end up warmer than those for any other August in the official NOAA database, which goes back to 1950. The most recent value of NOAA’s closely watched Oceanic Niño Index, which is based on three-month averages for Niño3.4, was +1.0°C for May-July 2015, which ranks behind only 1987 (+1.1°C) for May-July readings. The NOAA outlook released on Thursday notes that the atmosphere-ocean coupling remains strong across the tropical Pacific, with weaker-than-average trade winds. Also, showers and thunderstorms have shifted toward the central and eastern equatorial Pacific from the west. “Collectively, these atmospheric and oceanic features reflect a significant and strengthening El Niño,” noted the outlook.

Figure 1. Early-August status of the 1997 and 2015 El NIño events in terms of satellite-derived data showing departure from average sea-surface height for a given time of year, which is correlated with warmth in the upper ocean. This animation shows the side-by-side evolution of both events. Image credit: NASA/JPL.

More signs of a barn-burner El Niño can be gleaned from the international array of computer models scrutinized by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Each month BOM calculates a multimodel average of Niño3.4 values going out for several months. In July, BOM’s multimodel average indicated that the Niño3.4 anomaly (departure from the seasonal norm) will rise to around +2.6°C by October and +2.7°C by December. This would imply a three-month average (Oct-Dec) of between +2.6° and +2.7°C. Were this to materialize, it would be well above the previous record three-month average in the NOAA database of +2.3°C, observed in Sep-Nov and Oct-Dec 1997. The multimodel average soon to be released from August runs could end up a bit tamer than the value for July, given that several models have pulled back somewhat on their forecasts. NOAA’s Climate Forecast System (CFSv2), which was calling in July for a peak Niño3.4 anomaly of close to +3.0°C by late in the year, is projecting a value closer to +2.0°C in its most recent run (August 10).

Figure 2. NOAA’s Climate Forecast System model (CFSv2) continues to show El Niño intensifying into this autumn, then decreasing in early 2016, in a fairly typical pattern for a strong El Niño event. Niño3.4 sea-surface temperatures are projected by CFSv2 to rise to about 2.0°C above the seasonal norm. The panels at right show SSTs for three-month windows from Aug-Oct 2015 (top left) to Feb-Apr 2016 (lower right). Image credit: NOAA.

There are well-known limits to how well models can simulate El Niño, and even a solid model can be temporarily “fooled” by short-term changes in the tropical Pacific. Nevertheless, the general consistency in El Niño outlooks across models and across time--and the steadily building warmth across the eastern tropical Pacific, both at and below the surface--suggests that an event as strong or stronger than any observed in modern times is still a real possibility. That said, NOAA forecasters stressed in a Thursday morning news conference that El Niño is not guaranteed to bring drought relief to California. In the crucial water-storage region of the central Sierra, for examples, the last four years brought only 56% of the cumulative average precipitation from October 2011 through July 2015, leaving a 71-inch deficit. To make this up, the region would need roughly 2.5 to 3 times its annual average precipitation over the coming year, said Kevin Werner, director of climate services for the National Weather Service’s Western Region. “We’d need something in excess of the wettest year on record to balance the four-year deficit,” Werner said. This message was reinforced by Mike Halpert, deputy director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. “Just because something is favored, it doesn’t guarantee it will happen. One season of above-normal rain and snow is very unlikely to erase four years of drought,” said Halpert.

For more background on what impacts we might expect from El Niño over the next few months, see our North American roundup post from July 28 and our special post on potential Northeast U.S. impacts. Jeff Masters will take a look at global impacts of El Niño in a forthcoming post.

What happened to the El Niño of 2014-15?
If you thought we were already in an El Niño episode a few months ago, you might be puzzled to see that the official NOAA database no longer shows it. This change is due to a fairly minor update in the ocean temperature record that pulled one key period just below the required threshold.

Figure 3. Departures from seasonal average for sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) across the Niño3.4 region over three-month intervals from 1997 to 2015. The shaded box (Jan-Mar 2015), originally 0.5°C, was “demoted” to 0.4°C with a July upgrade to SST analysis techniques. Image credit: NOAA Climate Prediction Center.

To qualify as a full-fledged El Niño episode, the Niño3.4 departure must be sustained at +0.5°C or greater for at least five overlapping three-month-long periods. When NOAA analysts are tracking El Niño in real time, they rely on a series of daily and weekly analyses of sea-surface temperature called OISST (optimum interpolation SST). OISST incorporates data from a variety of sources, including satellite-based measurements that are useful for short-term needs but which can introduce biases if they’re folded into a longer-term dataset that predates a particular satellite. For those longer-term purposes, the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI, formerly NCDC) produces the Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature (ERSST), a monthly dataset that goes back to 1854 and that uses statistical techniques to fill in data gaps.

Every few years, the techniques used in ERSST are updated and a new version of the full dataset is released. This occurred with the advent of ERSSTv4 this past July. As it happens, ERSSTv4 brought down the Niño3.4 anomaly for January through March 2015 from +0.5°C to +0.4°C (see Figure 3). Even though every other three-month window since Oct-Dec 2014 is still at +0.5°C or greater, this “demotion” of Jan-Mar 2015 means that we have yet to see five consecutive three-month periods of El Niño. Without those five periods, we haven’t yet met the formal definition for an El Niño episode (shown as red intervals in the NOAA historical database and in Figure 3 above). By next month, though, we’ll have five consecutive periods, and the El Niño episode will again become official, extending back to Feb-Apr 2015. The ERSSTv4 introduction also downgraded a few other El Niño and La Niña events from the last 65 years. These are identified by Jan Null (Golden Gate Weather Services) on a website that classifies El Niño and La Niña events by strength. One more wrinkle: it’s possible that Jan-Mar 2015 could be “undemoted” next year, when the climatology that underlies the above- and below-normal categorizations goes through a scheduled five-year update that takes long-term warming into account. In any case, the atmospheric response to the warm Niño3.4 readings in the winter of 2014-15 fell short of the usual El Niño standards, according to Michelle L’Heureux (NOAA Climate Prediction Center), so it’s best not to place too much emphasis on this borderline event.

The Case of the Not-Quite El Niño Episode reminds us of an important point stressed by L’Heureux: “Our SST observations are estimates. This is why we always encourage looking at multiple indices and datasets when trying to assess the state of ENSO. No one dataset or index will ever be perfect.” The further back in time we go, the more piecemeal is our knowledge of the SSTs that prevailed at the time. This is why NOAA’s most commonly used database of ENSO episodes only extends back to 1950. It’s quite possible to use ERSSTv4 or analyses from other research centers to calculate Niño3.4 values prior to 1950. However, these must be used with caution, as the data become increasingly scant going back in time (see Figure 4 below). To help flesh out the picture, scientists look to independent measurements related to El Niño, such as the Southern Oscillation Index, based on the observed difference in barometeric pressure between Darwin, Australia, and Tahiti. The greatest confidence in pre-1950 ENSO history is for the very strongest events, which are typically reflected in a wide range of land-based repercussions consistent with El Niño and La Niña behavior. For example, the El Niño of 1877-78 appears to have been at least as strong as the “super” 1982-83 and 1997-98 events. Calculations based on ERSSTv4 by wunderground member Eric Webb (@webberweather) suggest that the Niño3.4 value topped 2.5°C for several months. Drought associated with the 1877-78 El Niño may have contributed to horrific multiyear famines that took an estimated 5 million lives in India and 9-13 million lives in China.

For an update on the latest tropical cyclone action, including a fizzling Tropical Storm Hilda and twin typhoons predicted to develop next week, see this morning's post by Jeff Masters.

Bob Henson

Figure 4. Distribution of sea surface temperature observations from the International Comprehensive Ocean Atmosphere Data Set for each 20-year period from 1860 to 1979. This dataset underpins the NOAA ERRST long-term reanalysis discussed above. Color shading indicates the percentage of months that have at least one measurement within a 2°-latitude by 2°-longitude grid box (roughly 140 by 140 miles near the equator). Image credit: Used with permission from “Sea Surface Temperature Variability: Patterns and Mechanisms,” Annual Review of Marine Science 2009, doi: 10.1146/annurev-marine-120408-151453, courtesy Clara Deser, National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Jeff Masters

#507404 - 09/11/15 12:31 PM Re: El Niño 2015 [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
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El Niño Heads for Potential Record Strength

NOAA’s monthly update on El Niño, released on Thursday, held no big surprises: we are on the upswing of one of the strongest El Niño events--very possibly the strongest--of the past 65 years of recordkeeping. As of last week (see PDF), sea-surface temperatures across a key part of the eastern tropical Pacific called Niño3.4 were running 2.1°C above the long-term average for this time of year.

Figure 1. Anomalies (departures from average for this time of year) in sea-surface temperature across the northern and eastern Pacific show the distinct band of warmth in the eastern equatorial Pacific characteristic of El Niño, as well as several other large areas of unusual warmth over the Northeast Pacific Ocean. An excellent article in BayNature explains the persistent “Blob” in the Northeast Pacific and how it might intersect with El Niño in the coming winter. Image credit: Levi Cowan,

Every El Niño is different, but the strongest events have some very distinct characteristics. Now that the atmosphere and ocean are in the mutually reinforcing pattern typical of strong El Niños, the course of the next few months is relatively predictable. Niño3.4 anomalies (departures from seasonal average) should continue to rise until peaking sometime around December or January, then subside early in 2015. (In its monthly update, NOAA gives 95% odds that El Niño will continue through the northern winter of 2015-16.) As evident in Figure 1, the odds of neutral conditions will rise dramatically toward spring, but this could represent the beginning of a transition toward La Niña. As the ocean rebounds from strong El Niño conditions, La Niña--a cooling of the eastern tropical Pacific--often, but not always, follows. (See the historical ENSO database for examples.) Since we’re now in the second winter of at least borderline El Niño conditions, it’s very unlikely that we’ll see El Niño continue past next spring. I would expect to see gradually rising odds of La Niña in upcoming forecasts as they extend further into 2016. If a La Niña were to develop by mid-year, it would favor a more active Atlantic hurricane season than usual in 2016.

Figure 2. Probabilities of El Niño (red bars), neutral (olive bars), or La Niña (blue bars) conditions for each three-month period from August-October 2015 to April-June 2016, based on a forecaster-consensus outlook produced by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center and the International Research Institute for Climate and Society. The thin red, olive, and blue lines show the long-term climatological likelihood of El Niño, neutral, or La Niña conditions for each period. Image credit: IRI.

A surge in El Niño strength this month?
In his WU blog, Steve Gregory observed earlier this week that temperatures in the Niño3.4 region appear to have risen by 0.3°C over a period of a week, with the rise not yet fully reflected in NOAA’s weekly El Niño updates (issued each Monday). Steve points out that the Niño3.4 values can vary quite a bit from one week to the next, and NOAA forecasters caution us not to obsess about minor week-to-week changes. That said, it’s worth noting that a weekly change of 0.3°C would fall in the top 5-10% of weekly changes observed from 1990 to mid-2015. If sustained, such a rise would also push the current El Niño event closer to record values.

NOAA’s weekly Niño3.4 values are based on a series of short-term analyses of sea-surface temperature called OISST (optimum interpolation SST). The OISST values include satellite-based measurements that can introduce biases when folded in with older data. To produce one-month and three-month statistics for the Niño3.4 area, NOAA uses a separate data set called the Extended Reconstructed Sea Surface Temperature (ERSST) to rank and classify El Niño events on a monthly and trimonthly basis. This monthly dataset goes back to 1854 and uses statistical techniques to fill in data gaps. The most recent three-month values, called the Oceanic Niño Index, were at 1.2°C above the long-term average for June through August. This is slightly below the JJA value of +1.4 observed during the pacesetting El Niño event of 1982-83. However, the 2015-16 event may now be overtaking 1982-83 in terms of its current strength, an outcome suggested by a range of international computer models (see Figure 3 below).

For more on the implications of El Niño for this winter, see our blog posts on the typical impacts for the U.S. in general and what might happen in the Northeast in particular. Jeff Masters will have a forthcoming post on the potential impacts beyond U.S. borders.

Figure 3. Forecasts by a suite of international computer models tracked by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology have gotten progressively stronger on the 2015-16 El Niño. For the above outlooks, issued in August and valid in November, the model average (shown in the bottom bar) indicates a Niño3.4 anomaly (departure from the seasonal average) of just above 2.8°C for the month as a whole. If these model runs through winter 2015-16 were to prove accurate, the current El Niño would be the strongest in records going back to 1950. The red and blue shading denotes values above or below 0.8°C, which represent the threshold for El Niño and La Niña, respectively, as used by Australian forecasters. NOAA uses 0.5°C as the threshold, since lesser values can still produce U.S. impacts. More information on each models can be found here. Image credit: BOM.

Jeff Masters

#507451 - 09/14/15 11:28 AM Re: El Niño 2015 [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 1999
Posts: 52,610
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Met office: strongest El Nino since 1950 on the way
Its current and predicted effects (video):

#508642 - 10/28/15 02:36 AM Re: El Niño 2015 [Re: Marty]  
Joined: Oct 2015
Posts: 2
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Hey Marty, Thanks for all the info. I follow this thread closely as I have an interest in global weather and also I will be visiting Ambergris Caye in late November. Have you noticed any difference in the weather out there yet, I read somewhere that many experts believe this November/December will be very wet and it could potentially carry on through till the new year?

Any more updates on El Nino 2015 would be much appreciated! Thanks

Last edited by JPower; 10/29/15 09:45 AM.

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