NOAA plays the sea level card with El Niño

Strong El Niño could bring increased sea levels, storm surges to U.S. East Coast

New study examines how El Niño in cold months affected water levels over past 50 years

Coastal areas along the East Coast

A new NOAA study found coastal areas along the East Coast could be more vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise in future El Nino years.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Coastal communities along the U.S. East Coast may be at risk to higher sea levels accompanied by more destructive storm surges in future El Niño years, according to a new study by NOAA. The study was prompted by an unusual number of destructive storm surges along the East Coast during the 2009-2010 El Niño winter.

The study, led by Bill Sweet, Ph.D. from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, examined water levels and storm surge events during the ’cool season’ of October to April for the past five decades at four sites representative of much of the East Coast: Boston, Atlantic City, N.J., Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C.

From 1961 to 2010, it was found that in strong El Niño years, these coastal areas experienced nearly three times the average number of storm surge events (defined as those of one foot or greater). The research also found that waters in those areas saw a third-of-a-foot elevation in mean sea level above predicted conditions.

“High-water events are already a concern for coastal communities. Studies like this may better prepare local officials who plan for or respond to conditions that may impact their communities,” said Sweet. “For instance, city planners may consider reinforcing the primary dunes to mitigate for erosion at their beaches and protecting vulnerable structures like city docks by October during a strong El Niño year.”

El Niño conditions are characterized by unusually warm ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific that normally peak during the Northern Hemisphere “cool season.” They occur every three to five years with stronger events generally occurring every 10-15 years. El Niño conditions have important consequences for global weather patterns, and within the U.S., often cause wetter-than-average conditions and cooler-than-normal temperatures across much of the South.

Aerial of a barge that grounded onto Virginia Beach

November 2009’s Mid-Atlantic Nor’easter brought damage to the Hampton Roads, Va. area, to include a barge that grounded onto Virginia Beach.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

The study builds on previous ocean-atmospheric research, which has concluded that during El Nino Nor’easter wind storms are more frequent along the East Coast during the ‘cool season’. El Niño and its impacts usually fade in the warmer months, and which may transition into La Niña conditions, which are generally opposite to those of El Niño. However, a similar connection between La Niña conditions and depressed East Coast sea levels was not found.

“This research furthers our understanding of the interconnections between the ocean and atmosphere, which are so important in the Earth’s climate system, and points to ways this greater understanding can be used to help coastal communities prepare for the winter season,” said Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the American Meteorological Society.

The study was published this month in the journal Monthly Weather Review of the American Meteorological Societyand can be found online at http://journals.ametsoc.org/doi/abs/10.1175/MWR-D-10-05043.1

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.

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51 thoughts on “NOAA plays the sea level card with El Niño

  1. Great news that they can now predict El Niño/La Niña.
    Oh, no, wait. So sorry, they can’t predict it at all.
    The take-home message is to prepare for anything I guess.

  2. “……..four sites representative of much of the East Coast: Boston, Atlantic City, N.J., Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C.”
    Hi Chris (aka savethesharks), you apprear to be doomed!

  3. “Thank you for visiting a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. You have chosen to proceed to a non-government website for additional information. NOAA and the U.S. Department of Commerce do not endorse this website or the information, products or services contained therein.”
    So – not only is it paywalled, but NOAA does not endorse the website or information, products or services contained therein. Sheesh…

  4. “From 1961 to 2010, it was found that in strong El Niño years, these coastal areas experienced nearly three times the average number of storm surge events (defined as those of one foot or greater). The research also found that waters in those areas saw a third-of-a-foot elevation in mean sea level above predicted conditions.”
    1/3 of a foot is 4 inches, but I guess that sounds really, really small to most readers who didn’t want the mental image.

  5. “1/3 of a foot is 4 inches”.
    It’s worse than that. It is also about 10cm. I blame the French.
    (Thank you Ryan Maue for your excellent work.)
    [ryanm: thanks, i’ll be posting tomorrow on La Nina]

  6. You live on the coast near sealevel and you are vulnerable to getting wet when there are onshore storms in the winter!
    Well blow me down!! Without the tireless dedicated work of the scientists (struggling to emerge from the morass of well-funded and organised Big Oil deniers, creationists and Campers who ,make hourly death threats to them) I;d never have guessed.
    Sheesh..Sea, onshore wind, + waves = wet!!
    I wonder how it feels to be the first in the history of humanity to make this truly remarkable connection!
    Like ‘some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the (Atlantic)’
    For those in UK who are unaware of exactly how significant a finding this is, 4 inches is about the depth of a whole standard housebrick laid on both sides with mortar.
    They are all doomed!!!
    /sarc off

  7. Ryan Maue says: July 16, 2011 at 1:18 am
    1/3 of a foot is 4 inches, but I guess that sounds really, really small to most readers who didn’t want the mental image.

    Sorta like a “McDonald’s Four Ouncer with Cheese.”
    Or maybe “Fourteen Thousand Million Dollars of Debt” instead of 14 Trillion.

  8. Ryan Maue wrote:
    “1/3 of a foot is 4 inches, but I guess that sounds really, really small to most readers who didn’t want the mental image”
    Well, the house next door costs a quarter of a million dollars and yesterday I ate a quarter pound burger. I think the climate conspiracy must be spreading… I see it everywhere!

  9. Anthony, I know you wanted to have a break but you can’t deny it’s all hotting up. The fever is and the warmists are sweating. We have to keep it up.

  10. Willis Eschenbach says:
    July 16, 2011 at 12:24 am
    Paywalled … there has to be a better way to do science.

    Yes – this is a constant frustration. I can perhaps understand it if the research is funded privately but who funds NOAA research. If it’s ultimately down to the taxpayer surely it should be available to all US citizens. I’m not sure where that leaves me (a UK citizen) though.

  11. “For instance, city planners may consider reinforcing the primary dunes to mitigate for erosion at their beaches and protecting vulnerable structures like city docks by October during a strong El Niño year.”
    Haul this heretic up before the Inquisition. The one true religion is in charge of all mitigation. Beaches and vulnerable structures can only be protected by making atmospheric CO2 levels 350 ppm. 350 ppm 350 ppm (/Gregorian chant off)

  12. Storm surges do not change basic sea level. If there is a storm surge somewhere the sea will be lower outside the surge area. The sea level datum stays the same. Thermal changes are slow to react to temperature changes because water holds a lot of heat and is a poor thermal conductor so temperature changes take time, and a constant temperature increase for the thermal expansion/contraction to take place. We are talking many years over the whole ocean volume, 1000-1500 years for total circulation. By comparison a storm surge is the blink of an eye.

  13. When Hugo came ashore at Charleston the average surge was 15 feet above high tide. Some areas such as Isles of Palms was about 20 feet and almost literally cut the island in half. Further studies indicate that an island on the south east coast of the US gets reduced to below sea level on average once per 500 years due to large hurricanes such as Hugo. Instead, we worry of 4 inches.

  14. Since no one has proven that this increase in storm surge did not occur prior to 1961, it is taken as fact the El Niño conditions exacerbating the tides must be caused by Global Warming.
    /sarc

  15. And we are back to averages again.
    A ‘storm’ to anyone who has lived on the coast means rough sea and big waves. Four inches is barely a ripple. I have crossed the North Sea and English Channel with waves heights up to the top deck of a ferry probably around 40 – 50 ft. Would people at Cape Hatteras get terrified at a four inch breaker crashing down? 😉
    So seriously, in storm conditions with large breaking waves and troughs – what is ‘average sea level’ and how is it measured? Lets see the method and assumptions before we all comment on the results.
    Remember NOAA is the agency with no quality control on its automated weather observation sites; so nothing that NOAA publishes can be taken on trust.

  16. A thousand million is a billion, a thousand billion, now you’re talking real money 🙂

  17. The winter of 1977-1978 was pretty wild on the coast of New England, and was just past the peak of a weak El Nino.
    Many remember the super-storm that shut down Boston in February, 1978, and gave east-facing shores a terrific pounding.
    However a few weeks earlier there was another huge storm that traveled north well to the west of New England, giving New England very strong winds from the south. These winds pushed waters up into the southeast facing harbors in Maine, where I lived, and the storm tide came as a complete surprise.
    I happened to be living in a small shack on a dock, and was busy writing the Great American Novel when I became aware the tops of waves were slamming against the floor louder and louder. Pretty soon my rug started to lift, due to the rush of squeezed air that preceded each wave, and then, as the wave thudded against the underside of the dock, fountains of water would spurt up through the cracks between the floorboards. I decided to exit stage left, but only managed to carry a few cardboard boxes of my stuff to my car before there was a loud crack, and the shack slowly slid down into the water like the Titanic.
    Old-timers told me that shack had been there since 1908, and the only time it came off the dock before was due a howling frontal passage in January, when wind alone had lifted the shack off the dock and dropped it on the winter ice.
    The dock was repaired and the shack jacked back up, but with Yankee pragmatism they built the entire structure about a foot higher.
    The range of normal tides in that area was over twelve feet, but a couple of extra feet of surge, at the time of high tide, really made a big difference. A great deal depended on the fetch of the wind. The storm that clobbered Boston a few weeks later had little effect in Maine.
    One worry in Boston involves the tunnels of the “Big Dig.” A hurricane’s storm surge, at high tide, would put several extra feet of water atop those tunnels, which is a huge increase in weight. Some worry that, even if the engineering is sound, that sub-standard cement was used.
    Those tunnels leak even on sunny days. I’d stay out of them in a storm.

  18. RELatimer Alder says:
    July 16, 2011 at 2:17 am
    “Like ‘some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the (Atlantic)”
    I always really liked that poem by John Keats, but he did get it wrong. It was Balboa, and not Cortez, who “discovered” the Pacific. However he can be forgiven. “Stout Balboa” simply ruins the flow of the poem.

  19. tokyoboy says: (July 16, 2011 at 12:26 am) “Hi Chris (aka savethesharks), you apprear to be doomed!”

    I believe Chris not only saves the sharks, tokyoboy, but even swims with them, so I am confident they in their turn will take him to a magic cavern free of such perils if need be — however, I think tsunami sea level rises are of more concern as your contrymen discovered, and hope you have had your one and only once-in-a-lifetime experience of them.

  20. Implicit in the study is that there will be more frequent and more severe El Nino episodes (computer models again?). With the PDO in its cold phase, that seems unlikely

  21. To take a line from a favorite movie “What the sea will have, the sea will take.” Just looking at the aerial image of Virginia Beach, it seems that there is a lot of stuff on what looks like a large sand bar. Large sand bars really belong to the sea, and she will reclaim them in time. Cyclical events like El Ninos might just be those times.

  22. The grant money is so copious that they can propose speculative topics like this and get paid? Seems to me that there might be any number of other topics to “investigate”…..

  23. This article is a clear indication of where the government could look save huge $$$ to reduce our debt and annual deficits.. Of course there are many more potential savings like this in the green fuels subsidy. Instead there are those who don’t know if he can pay Social Security.

  24. The research also found that waters in those areas saw a third-of-a-foot elevation in mean sea level above predicted conditions.
    Doesn’t that just mean their model was wrong?

  25. “High-water events are already a concern for coastal communities. Studies like this may better prepare local officials who plan for or respond to conditions that may impact their communities,” said Sweet. “For instance, city planners may consider reinforcing the primary dunes to mitigate for erosion at their beaches and protecting vulnerable structures like city docks by October during a strong El Niño year.”
    I have a question. Is anyone aware of any community (like the ones mentioned in this press release) which has implemented a project or changed their building plans in response to a NOAA “science product” (forecast) such as this? For example, Charleston SC (where I grew up) would begin building a massive sea wall near the Battery in downtown Charleston because NOAA said it MAY experience higher sea levels in El Niño years?
    I DO know that other NASA/NOAA “science products” are being used by our government to raise my taxes for no reason, but that’s another topic…

  26. NOAA claims that:
    “NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth’s environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources.”
    Not doing such a great job are they? The made up scare story is only valid IF sea levels rise as predicted by the awful Mann made(tm) computer models but as we can easily see if we look at recent sea level graphs their is a slight problem with their ridiculous made up mumbo jumbo pseudo science. Sea levels are no longer rising the models are wrong and the entire taxpayer funded exercise is a complete waste of time and money. One can only hope that this expensive freak show called NOAA will not survive the coming cuts in government spending.

  27. It appears to me that in most discussions of the claimed sea level rise due to “global warming,”
    the talk about mm or cm per decade, etc. gives an impression that sea level is static and will slowly creep up on you. As this article and some of the posters have indicated, the sea is very dynamic. I am on the beach right now on the coast of North Carolina and even in this mild weather waves of many varying heights are washing ashore. I know this is obvious, but isn’t is equally obvious that anything we do to reduce our vulnerability to sea level rise also reduces our vulnerability to storm surges? It is those events that cause the damage, not some gradual rise in sea level. We are much better off spending our money on adapting to sea level than giving it to the government in the form of carbon taxes, we get the added benefit of being better protected against storm surge. And it’s much less expensive. So let’s just raise Caleb’s shack another foot instead of spending a trillion dollars on needlessly removing CO2 from our energy systems.

  28. P.S. To earlier post:
    Looking back, I recall there was a third storm, that winter of 1977-1978. After Maine got clobbered by the warm storm, there was a snow storm before the big blizzard clobbered Boston. The old, icy snow-banks from that second storm made snow-removal that much harder, during the Boston Blizzard.
    There were wind gusts around 100 mph during that blizzard. Afterwards the shelves of the grocery store got a bit bare, where I lived up in Maine. It wasn’t due to local snow. It was because the big trucks couldn’t head north from Boston. I think the way the problem was handled was by re-routing trucks all the way around, so that they came down from Canada.
    The area where I now live in southern New Hampshire got clobbered in 1978, but the men all rushed off to work clearing snow down in the Boston area. The money was very good, especially if you happened to have a front-end-loader.
    When you get the local heavy-equipment-guys talking about that snow-removal job in February of 1978, you wind up slightly horrified by how they chuckle about plowing entire cars off the roads, to clear a lane for emergency vehicles. They also say that huge mountains of snow were heaped up in mall parking lots, and, as those piles melted in the spring, long-lost compact cars would reappear. (Usually it was white ones, that blended in with the snow, that got plowed into the piles.)
    At any rate, none of this has much to due with Global Warming or rising sea levels. It seems to have everything to due with the “rule,” that a weak El Nino can have worse effects on the east coast than a strong one. Of course, to obtain a proper analog you need to match up the phases of the PDO and AMO. I’ll leave that work to Ryan, and perhaps Joe Bastardi.
    .

  29. lived in Charleston SC since 1980 and flooding is not news here. Been watching cars float down the Crosstown from the time you could buy a Ford Pinto as a new car. We tend to blame the 19th century drainage system, curse our mayor and avoid the downtown area if it is raining

  30. Sound more like 4″ of local sea level rise due to El Nino storm surges, irregardless of what level the Sea is currently at. Does that mean that there is 4″ of local sea level drop due to La Nina storm surges? What happens in an ENSO Neutral Zone year?

  31. Wait a minute! How can a report produced by a Federal agency by federal employees be behind a paywall? As US taxpayers, we have already paid for that report, and reports produced by NOAA are supposed to be available to us, FREE online.

  32. The folks at http://www.cocorahs.org/ have been running a State Climate Series and are currently up to Virginia. That summary was written by Bruce P. Hayden and Patrick J. Michaels some years ago and is one of the best written and most interesting. They reference “The great coastal storms of 1962, which are remembered primarily because of the high surf and storm surges along Virginia’s coast….
    The only 1962 storm I’m familiar with was a nor’easter in March that cut Long Beach Island, a barrier island off New Jersey, in three places and destroyed my grandparent’s wonderful summer place in Harvey Cedars. I did a brief search and it appears any other storms are not memorable enough to be on the Web. The 50th anniversary of that storm is coming up – I’m expecting to write a post for it.
    The point today is A new NOAA study found coastal areas along the East Coast could be more vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise in future El Ni˜o years. That 1962 storm has never been equaled. 1962 was not an El Ni˜o year.
    Caleb says:
    July 16, 2011 at 6:30 am

    Looking back, I recall there was a third storm, that winter of 1977-1978. After Maine got clobbered by the warm storm, there was a snow storm before the big blizzard clobbered Boston. The old, icy snow-banks from that second storm made snow-removal that much harder, during the Boston Blizzard.

    1978 may have been an El Ni˜o year, but if so, just barely. BTW, that middle storm is called the Blizzard of ’78 in the midwest, it brought record low air pressure to Cleveland and accounts of snow drifts that rivaled the MA/RI Blizzard of ’78.
    See http://wermenh.com/blizz78.html and http://wermenh.com/blizz78a.html for more on those storms.
    BTW, I’m not sure about Maine, but the three storms in the Boston area were major snow storm (most snow in 24 hours), but not windy. Then wet storm that didn’t melt the snow banks from the first, then the blizzard which broke the most snow in 24 hours record and many others.
    While the ’78 storm has been equaled in terms of snow fall, it’s never been equaled in terms of coastal destruction since 1978. (There were worse storms before 1978.) Ditto for social disruption, but much of that was due to the perfect timing, starting just before noon on Monday.
    I’m finding less and less patience for worrywarts about increased storm surge, especially for El Niño events on the east coast. Let California worry about El Niños….

  33. Well if it weren’t for global warming there would be much of any ocean, and if the sea level hadn’t risen for the last ten thousand years there wouldn’t have been much of any ocean front properties to fix, so where would the job opportunities have gone then? :p
    So, essentially, risen sea levels, sinking sea levels, is all the natural cycle that creates new job opportunities. for people who always conclude they need even more money to come to a final conclusion.

  34. Amazing this – using a coastline that has seen extensive development for the period of this study. Let’s see, communities on or near drowned riverbeds, or on “reclaimed” land. Yep makes sense to me. Most areas have issues with sand replenishment of their beaches, all part of either a natural erosion process or one hijacked (and in failure) by people thinking they can stop these kinds of natural processes. The paywall aspect of this article is more than irritating…..

  35. Mike McMillan says:
    Sorta like a “McDonald’s Four Ouncer with Cheese.”
    Or maybe “Fourteen Thousand Million Dollars of Debt” instead of 14 Trillion.
    Umm. That’s only $14 billion. Chump change. You need a thousand of those to get to 14 Trillion.

  36. Being a former resident of Port Orford, Oregon, I was on a local committee for improvement of the local water treatment plant. Now the local government at the time was dominated by Greens who saw Port Orford as the next Mendicino.(In reality it’s more like “Cannery Row”-still is)
    Now the Greens had this idea of converting the local sand dune separating the local lake
    -Lagoon actually-Garrison lake.I lived on that lake. What happened is a lesson in the power of
    the Old Man of the North Pacific. The Old Gray Widowmaker had his way with the City of Port
    Orford’s Green dream. When the big El Nino of ’97/98 rolled into town, It was a perfect storm
    of hubris and bad planning. First. the Greenies pushed through the idea to dig up the sand
    dune,between the sea and the lake and install this big sand filter for the sewage outflow from the
    inadequate (on purpose, the idea being no building, no R.V.parks for the Hoi Polli.) Now to the tune of $2,000,000. the crapper in the sand was complete.
    Now. the city Engineer, who had a degree in Engineering (geological BTW) was more than dubious. he proposed that a study of competing systems be done. It was, but the green wonder got it, and so did the taxpayers of Port Orford…
    The Wonder was a box set in the Dunes,with of course the dunes being disturbed.It was a
    Square 10,000 US gal. concrete box. with assorted pipes and culverts going to it out of the
    new, high zoot, Treatment facility.(BTW there was nothing really wrong with the old one.) Now comes winter. Nino proceeds to take the new toy and chew on it and spit it out, -all of it.
    Standing on the Beach, I and a couple of other City Council and committee people were
    looking now awash concrete box heading out to sea, along with the pipes, and now the sea is in Garrison lake, and most of the homes on the lower banks. Also in the Waste Water Treatment
    plant.
    As we were watching this, a council member-one of the Greens, says:”Isn’t the power of
    nature amazing! Smiling, he adds that’s why we live here.” Not Smiling I add :”yeah and that’s
    a cool $2mil heading to Japan.” With this silly grin he says:” Well, this is the price you pay for living here, you pays your taxes and takes your chances.” With the rest of us, he darn near joined the Box on its way to Japan.
    BTW the whole disaster was blamed on two things: AGW, and the uppity City Engineer.
    Whom the City sued and an lost in court. to the tune of oh $35,000.00 ..
    Pays to keep notes…. and copies of meeting minutes that mysteriously disappeared…
    NOAA’s correct in planning for disaster. The Ocean is something that is always changing
    and never is forgiving of arrogance, stupidity , avarice, or a combination of all three…

  37. Ric Werme,
    Thanks for the info. You are right. It went snow storm, warm storm, blizzard. It was the second storm that clobbered Maine, but got little press.
    For the monthly SST anomolies in the 3.4 Nino area, since 1950, I look at pages 24-26 at this NOAA site:
    http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/lanina/enso_evolution-status-fcsts-web.pdf
    It is interesting to note that, according to their data, the 1962 storm you mentioned came towards the end of a period of neutral anomolies that extended from June 1958 to August 1962
    Four years! (Can you imagine how bored we’d all be, at this site, if four years passed without either an El Nino or a La Nina?!!) However it does affirm my hunch that the big storms happen when the SST anomalies in the 3.4 area are weak.
    Some interesting video about the Blizzard of ’78 at the bottom of this site:
    http://www.hurricanes-blizzards-noreasters.com/78blizzard.html
    If a hurricane stalled where that blizzard did it would rapidly weaken. The blizzard grew stronger and stayed stalled for two days. That was what really piled up the waters.
    The ’38 Hurricane rushed up from the south with a forward speed of around 60 mph, which kept it strong. It piled water up on the south-facing shores of New England, with huge tides, but the east-facing shores weren’t so bad.
    The ’38 Hurricane’s eye moved up the Connecticutt River valley. You might be able to get stronger winds in Boston, if you shifted that hurricane’s track east seventy miles, but even then I doubt the tides would match the ’78 blizzard’s.

  38. Also from NOAA, this advice contained in their “air quality alert” for my zip code.
    http://forecast.weather.gov/showsigwx.php?warnzone=ILZ014&warncounty=ILC031&firewxzone=ILZ014&local_place1=Elk+Grove+Village+IL&product1=Air+Quality+Alert
    Excerpt:
    PARTICIPANTS IN THE…PARTNERS FOR CLEAN AIR PROGRAM…ARE REQUESTED
    TO INITIATE THEIR ACTIVITIES. AREA RESIDENTS ARE ALSO URGED TO
    REDUCE POLLUTION LEVELS BY FOLLOWING THE TIPS BELOW.
    1. TAKE PUBLIC TRANSIT…RIDESHARE WALK OR BIKE.
    2. IF DRIVING CONSOLIDATE ERRANDS AND RUN THEM AFTER 7 PM.
    3. SWITCH TO COMPACT FLUORESCENT LIGHT BULBS.
    4. SET YOUR THERMOSTAT UP AT LEAST 2 DEGREES.
    5. TURN OFF AND UNPLUG ELECTRONICS.
    6. USE ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY HOUSEHOLD AND CLEANING PRODUCTS.
    7. USE A CHARCOAL CHIMNEY OR GAS GRILL INSTEAD OF LIGHTER FLUID.
    8. AVOID USING GASOLINE-POWERED EQUIPMENT ON ACTION DAYS.
    9. DO NOT BURN LEAVES AND OTHER YARD WASTE.
    10. CHECK YOUR LOCAL DAILY AIR QUALITY FORECAST OR SIGN UP TO
    RECEIVE YOUR FORECAST VIA EMAIL AT http://WWW.CLEANTHEAIR.ORG.
    ========
    So, activism now gets included in NOAA’s alerts ?

  39. Mount Pinatubo card, China coal card and now the El Niño card. Me thinks the house of cards will soon come tumbling down. ;O)

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