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Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate

By Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Founder of The Paleo Diet
October 17, 2019
Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

Editor's note

Most of us know something about Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated story, and her attempt to become the first woman to fly around the world. In this thoroughly researched article, Dr. Loren Cordain sheds new light on what may have ultimately led to Earhart’s death in the Pacific, and the whereabouts of her demise.


Since Amelia Earhart’s disappearance on July 2, 1937, the destiny of this famed aviatrix continues to captivate both public and scientific attention. Recent triangulation and a combination of numerous data points from multiple scientific disciplines mainly compiled by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) have now allowed a reasonably accurate reconstruction of the events (7-48) which led to Earhart’s disappearance and her presumed death (15-17) on Gardner Island (renamed Nikumaroro Island in 1979), likely by complications of severe dehydration.

Nevertheless, “smoking gun evidence” – discovery of the remnants of her airplane (Lockheed Electra 10E Special, NR16020) or DNA from her suspected bones (15-17) has continued to be elusive. Consequently, the fate of Earhart is still debated despite the overwhelming data gathered by TIGHAR, Richard Gillespie (the executive director of TIGHAR), The National Geographic Society, Richard Jantz, Ph.D. (Department of Anthropology, University of Tennessee,) and others (7-48), demonstrating that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were forced to land their airplane on Gardner Island and then likely died there as castaways.

Amelia Earhart's global encircling flight attempts

Amelia Earhart began her first flight intending to encircle the earth at or near the equator on March 17, 1937, from Oakland California. Her plan was to initially fly her Lockheed Electra airplane westward to Hawaii, then rest and refuel and head off towards remote Howland Island in the Central Pacific, halfway between Hawaii and Lae, New Guinea. The plan for the first world flight attempt was for Earhart to make most of the trip solo. Technical advisor Paul Mantz rode in the copilot seat as far as Hawaii. Navigator and radio operator Harry Manning and navigator Fred Noonan road in the cabin. For the flight to Howland, Manning was in the copilot seat and Noonan was in the cabin. The plan was for Noonan to leave the flight at Howland and Manning to accompany Earhart as far as new Guinea. From there she would continue alone. After the wreck in Hawaii, Manning left the project. On the second world flight attempt Noonan usually rode in the copilot seat. However, Noonan’s primary duty was to serve as the navigator, hence he frequently sat at a small table located in the stern of the airplane, just opposite the main entrance door (21) to calculate their bearings and other flight parameters. Earhart’s trans-global equatorial flight represented neither an official U.S. governmental or military mission, but rather a personal endeavor to promote her career as well as that of all female aviators.

After landing at Luke Field (NAS Ford Island), in Honolulu, Hawaii, Earhart, Manning, and Noonan rested, refueled, and then took off on the morning of March 20, 1937 for isolated Howland Island 1,900 miles to the west. Unfortunately, Earhart lost control of the Electra while traveling down the runway at Luke Field and got into a sideways loop which snapped off the right (starboard) front landing gear and tire of the aircraft. Neither Earhart nor Noonan was significantly hurt in this crash, but the Electra was severely damaged and was subsequently loaded upon a ship for return to the U.S. mainland for repair. So ended Earhart’s and Noonan’s first global circum-equatorial flight attempt.

Never a quitter, the tremendously self-confident Amelia, with her newly repaired Lockheed, took off again on her second global equatorial flight attempt from Oakland to Burbank, California, on May 20, 1937. From Burbank she flew to Tucson, Arizona, and then to New Orleans and onto Miami, Florida, where she announced to the world her transglobal equatorial flight attempt.

On June 1, 1937, she left Miami and the U.S. for San Juan, Puerto Rico, thus beginning the foreign portion of her international flight around the world. Noonan, once again, acted as navigator. Because of changing prevailing weather patterns, Earhart’s second around-the-world attempt forced her to follow more favorable seasonal winds flowing from west to east. The pilot and her navigator encountered few serious mechanical problems (22) as they flew southeastward from Miami to South America, and then onto Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, ultimately arriving 22,000 miles away at Lae, New Guinea on June 29, 1937 (22).

But the flight to Lae was not entirely without incident as instrument malfunctions (difficulties with the Cambridge exhaust gas analyzer) occurred from June 24 to June 26 (22). More ominously, the airplane’s Bendix direction finding coupler used with the Western Electric 20B radio receiver failed its direction-finding test in Lae on July 1 (22), the day before Earhart and Noonan’s departure from Lae to Howland Island. This failure and other radio difficulties would ultimately impact her effort to locate Howland Island (38).

The next leg from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island would represent the longest and most dangerous step in the attempt (7, 22). Earhart and Noonan departed from Lea at 10 a.m. on the morning of July 2, 1937. This leg was quite risky because the intended landing place, Howland Island, was so small (1.5 miles in length and 0.5 miles in width, comprising only 640 acres) that it would require exquisite navigational skills to locate, particularly after a fatiguing 19-hour, 2,556-mile journey that crossed the International Dateline.

Amelia Earhart's disappearance

In December 1936, ground was cleared for a rudimentary aircraft landing area at Howland Island in anticipation that the small landmass might eventually become a stopover for commercial trans-Pacific air routes. The U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce constructed three graded, unpaved runways on the island to accommodate these goals, as well as to allow Earhart’s twin-engine Lockheed to land during her 1937 flight.

At the time, Earhart had become such a universal celebrity and darling of the worldwide press (not to mention famous personalities such as Eleanor Roosevelt), that her record flight attempts were international spectacles. The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Itasca was sent to Howland Island, though not solely to support Earhart. The Coast Guard had been backing the Department of Interior representatives on Howland since 1935. The Earhart support role for the Itasca was incidental to a routine resupply visit. There, it drifted offshore to monitor the upcoming radio voice signals from Earhart and help guide her and Noonan to the Island. There were no “naval” radio operators on Howland. A few Department of Interior ham radio operators were stationed on Howland, and one Coast Guard operator was put ashore to man an experimental direction finder.

Following her departure from Lae, New Guinea, at 10 a.m., a plan was in play for Earhart to make position reports to Lae every hour at 18 minutes past the hour, but no reports were received for the first five hours. Only three reports were heard – 5 hours, 6 hours and 7 hours out.

A position report received at Lae on July 2 indicated that the flight was on course and on schedule (7, 22). However, the radios on the Lockheed Electra (a Western Electric Model 13C radio transmitter and a Model 20 B receiver) were only designed for a range of a few hundred miles (13). Accordingly, when Earhart eventually flew outside the range of Lae radio reception, her plan was to synchronize her one-hour broadcasts with the Itasca Coast Guard cutter’s radio reception and transmitter signals as she approached Howland Island (38). Additionally, Itasca was to send visual smokestack signals to the airborne Electra once they knew it was in range.

Unfortunately, Earhart never established two-way radio communication with anyone during the entire flight, and Earhart’s and Noonan’s paths to catastrophe were sealed (38). Earhart’s radio transmission were standard frequencies (3105 kHz for nighttime transmissions, 6210 kHz for daytime transmissions) that were reserved for U.S. registered aircraft calling ground stations. She could also transmit on the standard nautical 500 kHz calling and distress frequency.

There was nothing wrong with the Itasca’s ability to transmit. The problem was Earhart’s inability to receive their signals due to the likely loss of her receiving antenna during the takeoff at Lae. Her Bendix RDF coupler worked without a problem, unfortunately she asked Itasca to send her signals on a frequency far too high for it to respond.

Earhart’s aircraft left Lae loaded with 1,100 gallons of aviation fuel, which was close to the airplane’s capacity of 1,151 gallons (21). Fuel management recommendations for the flight to Hawaii in March 1937 on the first trans equatorial flight attempt were calculated by Lockheed engineer, Kelly Johnson. For the eastward Lae to Howland flight, it is presumed she used the previous figures that Kelly Johnson had calculated.

Itasca’s radio log recorded several transmissions from Earhart as she flew in range of Howland Island. The first important call came in at 7:12 a.m. Howland Island local time, which corresponded to 8:42 a.m. Gardner Island local time. That call came at 7:12 am Itasca time. The operators on Howland were using Hawaii time, which would be 8:12 am. Earhart’s broadcast on 3105 kHz was: “We must be on you but cannot see you. Gas is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

Earhart’s last in-flight transmission heard by the Itasca was, “We are on the line 157/337. We repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles.” This communication was heard at 8:55am Itasca time/ 9:55 Howland Island time/ and 9:25 Gardner Island time (14).

The message, “We are on the line 157/337,” was to show the Itasca radio dispatchers the direction Earhart and Noonan were following as they attempted to locate Howland Island. “We are on the line 157/337” refers to “The Line of Position” (LOP), an 18th century nautical technique combining angle of observation of a celestial body (the rising sun, in this case, for Noonan) with an exact time of day to determine location (25, 26). Overcast conditions had prevented Noonan from using celestial navigation overnight, so he had to rely upon the sun’s rising position as he approached Howland Island (25). Accordingly, Noonan’s physical position in the airplane at sunrise was likely in the cockpit of the airplane where he could view the rising sun with his bubble octant. In support of this speculation was the fact that the airplane should have been on a heading of roughly 78° True. The sun rose at 67° True. To shoot the sun shortly after sunrise Noonan would have needed to be in the cockpit.

The Itasca radio dispatchers, upon hearing Earhart’s radio transmissions, were helplessly unable to reach out to her with counter transmissions to help guide her to Howland Island because of various radio problems between the two (38). Another tiny island, Baker Island, lies about 43 miles directly south or slightly southeast of Howland Island, but Earhart’s radio transmissions at the expected time of arrival on Howland indicated that they saw no land below their aircraft.

The most recent data suggest Earhart and Noonan crossed the LOP at least 150 miles southeast of Howland. Once they realized that their destination was nowhere to be visually determined at its calculated LOP, they had to make a decision to fly along the 157/337 LOP in either a north-northwest or south-southeast direction (or both) as their dwindling gas reserves ran out. Gardner Island generally lies upon the 157/337 LOP in the south-southeast direction from Howland Island. So, it is apparent that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan ultimately decided to fly on a south-southeast course (25, 26) that would eventually result in both of their deaths as castaways after landing at Gardner Island.

Arrival on Gardner Island (renamed Nikumaroro Island in 1979)

As Earhart and Noonan approached Gardner Island, they flew in from the northwest generally along the 157/337 LOP, likely flying at 1,000 feet. With minimal fuel supplies, and an estimated cruising speed between 100 to 150 mph (20), they sighted Gardner Island and likely made a pass or two at low altitude around the island before Earhart chose their landing area on the coral reef. Hence, while still in the air they may have been able to read the name on the side of a wrecked freighter that ran aground on the northwest corner of the reef on November 29, 1929 (36) (Figures 1, 2). The freighter’s name “Norwich City” was painted in bold white letters on the port side of the northeast facing bow of the wrecked ship, which would be directly viewable to a circling airplane to the west of the ship (Figures 1, 2) (28, 36). The available data indicates the white lettering survived the fire that engulfed the ship after its wreck in 1929 and was still visible in 1944 (36).

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image
Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

The suggested landing speed for the Electra Model 10 A (and Model 10E NR16020) at sea level (with flaps) is 63 to 65 mph (29, 37), and the estimated stopping distance was 1,000 to 2,500 feet (34, 37). The stopping distance for the Lockheed L10 on a dry surface has been estimated to be 1,000 feet; that distance extends to 1,350 feet for wet grass and 2,500 feet for wet concrete or ice (37).

Earhart’s last transmission to the Itasca, “We are on the line 157/337” occurred at 9:25 a.m. Gardner Island time (14). A crucial fact that was not originally considered by investigators until years after Earhart and Noonan were lost, was the tidal ebb and flow on Gardner Island on the morning of July 2, 1937 (14, 20). Without a low tide, Earhart could not have safely landed her aircraft upon the coral reef at Gardner Island (14, 20). Fortunately, tides were low and, thus, landing was possible during that particular morning (14, 20). Below is an analysis of that arrival window based upon tidal ebb and flow.

The message contains no mention of an island in sight, so the aircraft was not yet in visual range of Gardner. The earliest the aircraft could reasonably arrive is therefore roughly 9:45 a.m. At that time the reef is dry, but the tide is coming in. Based upon the aircraft’s landing speed and tire size, the water level on the reef must be no more than 6 inches (.15m) for a safe landing. The arrival window closes at about 11:30 a.m.” (14).

Exactly where on Gardner Island Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed is currently conjectured (14, 18) but is not known with certainty (14, 18, 35, 46). Additionally, Noonan likely suffered serious or life-threatening injuries during the landing at Gardner Island (14). Both events have important implications for the interpretation of “What really happened to Amelia Earhart?”

Radio transmission evidence for Gardner Island landing

Early on the afternoon of July 2, 1937, the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office in San Francisco put out an “all ships, all stations” communiqué announcing that the Earhart airplane had failed to arrive at Howland Island and was assumed down at sea (13). Because it was presumed that the airplane could transmit signals if afloat, the Navy asked all relevant radio receivers to listen to Earhart’s primary frequencies of 3105 kHz and 6210 kHz (13). After the pair were assumed to be “down at sea,” all subsequent radio signals from the aircraft have been referred to as “Post-Loss Radio Signals” (13). Unfortunately, the official report by the Itasca’s commanding officer, Warner Thompson, had dismissed all the “Post-Loss Radio Signals” and concluded, it was “extremely doubtful that Earhart ever sent signals after 0846 (sic), 2 July” (24).

This official conclusion flies in the face of contemporary analyses of the 57 credible, beyond a shadow of a doubt (CBRD) radio transmissions made by Earhart and Noonan after their last in-flight transmission to the Itasca on July 2, 1937 (14, 20). Earhart and Noonan’s “post loss” transmissions on their primary frequencies (3105 and 6210 kHz) were heard by U.S. government or professional commercial radio operators including: 1) the U.S. Navy; 2) the U.S. Coast Guard; 3) Royal Navy radiomen aboard ships; 4) U.S. Navy Radio, Wailupe, Hawaii; 4) Navy Radio Tutuila; 5) American Samoa; 6) U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Honolulu, Hawaii; 7) licensed amateurs of the U.S. Department of Interior on Howland and Baker Islands; 8) Pan American Airways radio direction finding stations on Oahu, Midway, and Wake Islands; 9) and the Amalgamated Wireless station on Nauru Island (13). This data unequivocally demonstrates that Earhart’s airplane landed on solid ground and was able to make radio transmissions for a six-day period from July 2, 1937 to July 7, 1937 (14, 20).

More importantly, four technologically advanced radio receivers located in the Pacific Ocean region in 1937 (Wake Island, Midway Island, Mokapu Point on Oahu, Hawaii, and Howland Island) had the ability to determine the radio transmission beam angle bearings of Earhart’s frequencies (3105 kHz and 6210 kHz) (13, 30). Of the seven credible “post-loss” transmissions detected by the four advanced radio receivers, five triangulate Earhart’s position to the immediate vicinity of Gardner Island (13, 30). This data provides additional, compelling evidence that Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed on Gardner Island (13, 30) and were able to make nightly low tide (14, 20) radio transmissions during that six-day period (13, 30).

The radio transmitter on Earhart’s airplane was directly positioned below Noonan’s small navigational table in the stern of the airplane, in front of the airplane’s lavatory and toilet space (27, 30). However, Earhart keyed the radio transmitter from a mouthpiece microphone in the airplane’s cockpit. Noonan had two positions in the airplane where he would have been sitting: 1) the right-hand cockpit seat, or 2) at the navigational table in the stern of the aircraft. If Noonan were positioned at the navigational table and wanted to enter the cockpit, he would have had to climb over four of the six auxiliary tanks totaling 754 gallons (21) installed in the Electra at the middle of the fuselage. As you can see from this photograph (Figure 3), the maneuver required to pass from the stern to the cockpit or vice versa was not an easy movement. Just like Earhart’s left-hand captain’s seat, the right-hand cockpit seat had lap belts, but no shoulder harnesses. The navigator position in the stern of the airplane had no known permanent seats or restraints.

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

The six-day period (July 2 to July 7) on Gardner Island and beyond

The landing and Noonan's serious injuries

The forced landing at Gardner Island likely was rough, bumpy, and violent as the airplane touched down on the coral reef at an estimated landing speed of 63-65 mph (29, 37). Noonan likely suffered serious and/or life-threatening injuries upon or after landing at Gardner Island based upon “post-loss” signals received worldwide (14). TIGHAR indicates that contemporary inspections of the coral reef at Nikumaroro demonstrate that “the coral closer to shore is jagged, slippery, pitted and always covered with several inches or more of water.” (13).

If Noonan was positioned in the stern of the aircraft, he would have had no lap belt restraints. Upon landing he may have experienced violent bumps and rapid decelerations that could have slammed his head and body into the six 754-gallon gas tanks separating the cockpit from the stern of the airplane or elsewhere. Alternatively, he may have suffered his serious injuries (14) while sitting in the right-hand cockpit seat upon landing as his head and chest careened into the cockpit dash panel during rapid decelerations that may have occurred. Finally, it has been suggested that he could have fallen on the coral reef after exiting the airplane.

Besides the two primary radio frequencies (3105 kHz and 6210 kHz) Earhart used to broadcast her transmissions from Gardner Island, she unknowingly was transmitting other radio frequencies. Radio transmitters of that era frequently utilized electronic circuit designs that produced harmonics (multiples) of the two primary radio frequencies that Earhart transmitted. High harmonic frequencies “skip off the ionosphere and may travel great distances, however clear reception is erratic and changeable (13).” Nevertheless, Amelia’s erratic harmonic transmissions from Gardner Island were heard globally (14).

On July 2, a CBRD radio transmission by Amelia at 9:00 p.m. Gardner Island time was heard by Mabel Larremore in Amarillo, Texas, saying that Noonan was “seriously injured” and “needed help immediately.” Earhart stated she had “some injuries but not as serious as Mr. Noonan’s” (14). A man’s voice was heard in several credible messages on July 3 and 4, suggesting that Noonan, although injured, was at least lucid. By July 5th, Noonan’s condition had deteriorated (14). Betty Klenck, a 15-year-old teenager from St. Petersburg, Florida, was listening on her family’s shortwave radio which was attached to a long wire antenna when she heard Earhart’s desperate CBRD radio transmissions for help. She transcribed the messages she heard into her notebook. In Klenck’s transcription, Earhart seems to be in pain from what may have been an ankle injury (misheard as “uncle”) (14). Noonan, however, was delirious and panicky. The nature of his injury is nowhere mentioned, but Klenck thought he may have struck his head (14). Two days later (July 7), Thelma Lovelace of St. Johns, New Brunswick, hears the following CBRD radio transmission, “Can you read me? Can you read me? This is Amelia Earhart. This is Amelia Earhart. Please come in. We have taken in water; my navigator is badly hurt; my navigator is badly hurt; we are in need of medical care and must have help; we can’t hold on much longer” (14).

The landing area on Gardner Island

Earhart’s normal cruising speed and altitude in the Lockheed Electra was 150 mph (21) and between 8,000 and 10,000 feet (21). However, as she approached Howland Island, she indicated that her cruising altitude had been reduced to 1,000 feet to better visually locate the island below the clouds. She was also running low on fuel, so she may have reduced her normal cruising speed to an estimated 100 to 130 mph (20) as she flew along the 157/337 LOP. Earhart likely made one or two low altitude visual passes of Gardner Island before deciding upon the most risk-free landing area on the coral reef. Figure 4 below shows a map of Nikumaroro Island.

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

A few key facts and sites on the island should be pointed out. The island is a coral atoll with a central lagoon and is approximately 4.7 miles long and 1.6 miles wide. The island has been briefly inhabited off and on from 1892 until 1963 but has perpetually failed to thrive because of periodic droughts and an unstable freshwater lens (a convex reservoir of freshwater that floats above the denser saltwater and is recharged by rainwater). When Earhart and Noonan arrived on July 2, 1937, the island was uninhabited, as it is now and has been since 1963 - 1964.

The dehydration clock starts ticking

Humans can survive for four to six weeks without food, but without water we rapidly dehydrate and die from life threatening physiological complications of dehydration, generally in about three days (1-6). Fatal dehydration is modulated via numerous environmental conditions including ambient temperature, shade, relative humidity, activity, age, gender, height and weight, fitness levels, health, and other factors (1-6). Each of these factors influence water balance (balance = water ingested – water loss) (1-6). When water losses exceed the water we ingest, dehydration occurs. Mild dehydration corresponds to one to two percent of body weight loss in adults and can lead to a significant impairment in cognitive function (alertness, concentration, short term memory) and psychomotor performance (3, 5). Fluid deficits of four percent decrease physical performance, and cause headaches, irritability, sleepiness, and increased respiratory rates in children (5). Severe dehydration occurs with greater than eight percent or more weight loss and is life threatening (5). Accordingly, water represents the single most important nutrient that humans must regularly ingest (1-6).

Based upon tidal ebbs and flows, the earliest the Electra could have reasonably arrived on Gardner Island was roughly between 9:45 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on July 2 (14). Hence, that window of time marks the beginning of the physiological dehydration event that almost certainly contributed to the death of Earhart and Noonan.

Amelia’s presumed remains (15-17) (Figure 5) were discovered in September 1940 at a location on the southeastern end of Gardner Island, today referred to as Seven Site (17) (Figure 4), close to shore and underneath the shade of a ren tree (Tournefortia argentia) (17).

Figure 5. The 13 bones discovered at Seven Site on Gardner Island in September 1940 and presumed to be the skeletal remains of Amelia Earhart (15). Figure 5 from (16).

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

The 13 bones lay scattered upon the ground’s surface and were found by a working party at Gardner Island for the British Phoenix Island Settlement Plan in 1940. Upon discovery of the skeletal remains, the workers dug a hole in the coral rubble and buried the skull, but not any other bones (15). The British officer in charge of the Settlement Plan, Gerald Gallagher, ordered a more thorough search of the area and subsequently discovered all 13 bones depicted in Figure 5 (15, 16).

During the six-day period that both Earhart and Noonan made their “Post-Loss” radio transmissions from the Lockheed, they both obviously had to be present in the Electra during their nightly transmissions (14). To cite TIGHAR:

“We can be sure that Earhart and Noonan were aboard the Electra during the active periods, and the new graphs designate those times. We can also be sure that the temperature aboard the metal aircraft parked in the sun during the day would encourage seeking shade, food, and water ashore during daylight hours.” (13).

During daytime hours when the tide rose, conditions were impossible for radio transmissions (13, 20), and the environmental conditions (ambient temperature and relative humidity) inside the all-metal airplane would have been excruciating. Consequently, if they were physically able to do so, Earhart and Noonan likely sought shade on shore during high tide and daylight hours. Then, at night, they likely returned to the airplane during lower tides and cooler temperatures (13, 20) to make radio transmissions (14), which were their only hope of rescue.

Because of Noonan’s life-threatening injuries (14), he may not have been able to climb out of the airplane and walk to Seven Site, where Earhart’s presumed remains were found (15-17). As previously noted, Noonan’s voice was lucid on July 3 and 4, but by the July 5 post-loss transmission (14) his condition had deteriorated and was described as “delirious and panicky” (14). His condition is not surprising, given that he was now likely on his third day without sufficient water, in addition to any physical trauma he may have suffered during or after the landing. Two days later, on July 7 at 1:30 a.m., Thelma Lovelace heard Earhart say, “We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt; my navigator is badly hurt; we are in need of medical care and must have help; we can’t hold on much longer.” Noonan was now likely six days without sufficient water and was probably near death from severe dehydration and his life-threatening injuries. It is likely that he no longer had the strength to climb out of the Electra and walk to their shoreline campsite at Seven Site. Although Earhart was also likely dehydrated, her body surface area (height 5’7” weight 130 pounds) was less than Noonan’s (height 6’ ¼”, estimated weight 165 pounds). Accordingly, it is likely that Earhart’s water loss was less than Noonan’s on July 7, 1937.

When Earhart and Noonan touched down on Gardner Island on the morning of July 2, 1937, they could not have known their exact location by latitude and longitude. The only distinguishing feature of the Island was the name “Norwich City” on the shipwreck at the northwest corner of the island (36) (Figures 1, 2) which they likely saw as they circled the island looking for a safe landing area on the atoll. Both Earhart and Noonan obviously realized that their only chance of rescue from this uninhabited island would be to radio their location to the outside world. After nightfall on their first day’s existence on Gardner island, Noonan almost certainly determined their latitude and longitude, via celestial navigation, using his bubble octant. Earhart broadcast this information (latitude and longitude) to all worldwide listeners (14). Their location was heard on several occasions by listeners Mabel Larremore on July 2, by Dana Randolph on July 4, and by Betty Klenck on July 5 (14). Unfortunately, the latitude and longitude coordinates have not survived (14). Because Noonan likely did not have a chart aboard the Electra which could show the name of Gardner Island (14, 39), Earhart’s only recourse on her radio transmissions was to give her latitude and longitude and the distinguishing name of the island’s shipwreck “Norwich City.” Klenck repeatedly heard Earhart saying something that sounded like “New York City” (39) which likely via erratic harmonic distortions actually may have been “Norwich City” indicating the characteristic shipwreck on the island.

No ambient day and nighttime temperatures or environmental data exist for Gardner Island from July 2, 1937 to July 7, 1937. The island was uninhabited without a weather station. Nevertheless, historical and more recent records from nearby inhabited islands in the South and Central Pacific can provide reasonable estimates of the environmental conditions that the pair would have faced after landing on Gardner Island. From July 2, 1937 until July 16, 1937 the estimated average high temperature on Gardner Island likely was 85 °F and the average low temperature likely was 74 °F. The estimated mean 24-hour relative humidity likely was between 75 to 80 percent, and the estimated average daily rainfall in July likely was 0.08 inches. These estimated environmental conditions clearly lead to negative total body water balances (water balance = water ingested – water loss) in humans and consequently progressive dehydration unless fresh water is ingested (1-6).

Although no specific direct records exist of the food and water that Earhart and Noonan carried aboard the Electra for their expected 19-hour flight from Lae, New Guinea to Howland Island, a photograph of the plane being loaded for the second world flight attempt shows 4 Thermos jugs. Further, the inventory of the aircraft made by the Army after Earhart’s accident in Hawaii on the first world flight included 2 one-quart Thermos jugs, 2 canteens “type 4N”, and 1 canteen “type 6N”.

It is known that Earhart preferred traveling light on her long-distance record flights. In a Heinz Radio interview conducted between 1935 and 1937 (43), she said “Tomato juice is my favorite ‘working’ beverage, and food too. In colder weather, it may be heated and kept hot in a thermos.” (40, 43). Her thermos of choice was a Stanley Super Vac Thermos (approximately one-quart capacity), manufactured between 1930 and 1935 and used by the famous Australian aviatrix Nancy Bird Walton (41) (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Amelia Earhart brought a Stanley Super Vac Thermos, identical to the one pictured below, on her solo Atlantic Crossing in 1932.

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

Calvin Pitts brought Amelia’s actual Stanley Super Vac Thermos with him on his successful world flight in 1981 (42) (Figure 7).

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

Earhart further indicated that her in-flight menu was determined by three rules (40). The first, she said, was to be fed enough to “prevent fatigue but not enough to induce drowsiness” (43). The second was that the food had to be something that she could eat easily. “Since pilots have only two hands and dozens of things to do, mealtime technique has to be simple,” she explained. “So I’ve developed a gadget, which is really a fat ice pick. With the can between my knees, one-handed, I punch a hole in the top. A straw just fits the hole — and the rest is easy” (43).

“Flying the Atlantic — a journey of 16 hours from New Foundland (sic) to Ireland — my menu outside of tomato juice was restricted to a few squares of chocolate. It was rather a difficult night leaving me without time or inclination to be hungry. On my solo flight from Mexico City to New York my mainstay was a hardboiled egg (43).”

“Sometimes hot cocoa supplements tomato juice. Sweet chocolate and occasionally raisins are stimulating too” (43).

Human taste buds can detect five sensations: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Recently, it has been demonstrated that the umami sensation is enhanced in loud environments (>85 dB) such as aircraft cabins (49, 50) whereas sweetness is depressed (49, 50). Hence, Earhart’s appetite for tomato juice on long (~15 hour) flights may have stemmed from her enhanced umami taste, induced by loud cockpit environments (49, 50).

Earhart’s third rule regarding nutrition and aeronautical flight had to do with weight. She was obsessed with the weight of her aircraft. She carried as little aboard as possible — a handkerchief, a tube of cold cream, tomato juice — to allow for more fuel (40). As she told her husband and manager, George Putnam, “My concern was simply to fly alone to Europe. Extra clothes and extra food would have been extra weight and extra worry. A pilot whose plane falls into the Atlantic is not consoled by caviar sandwiches.” (40).

Taken together, the preceding information indicates that Earhart and Noonan had made little or no provisions for a landing of their aircraft which would strand them without food or water. Based upon their lack of preparations, they likely assumed that they would arrive safely at each destination on their global circumnavigational flight. The available evidence suggests their only liquid/water source onboard the Electra would have been from tomato juice (likely 32-ounce (one-quart) capacity cans, based upon 1937 advertisements) and the contents of the one-quart Stanley Super Vac Thermos. Accordingly, if Earhart’s liquid reserves were one 32-ounce (0.946 liters) can of tomato juice and a single one-quart (0.946 liters) thermos, then her total water on board would have amounted to slightly less than 1.89 liters. If Noonan had similar liquid supplies as Earhart, then the total water on board the Electra would have likely been slightly less than 3.78 liters. If they would have doubled this quantity, then their on-board water supplies likely were somewhat less than 7.56 liters. Sedentary adults should drink 1.5 liters of water per day (3) and optimally > 1.8 liters per day to prevent dehydration (1). Accordingly, with their maximal estimated-on board liquid supplies, the pair would have likely exhausted all aircraft water stores by about July 5, 1937.

The physiological dehydration window began ticking somewhere between 9:45 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. on July 2, 1937 and ultimately contributed to both of their deaths. The average length of time that humans can exist without water is about three days (1-6). The July environmental conditions likely present at Gardner Island may have accelerated Amelia and Fred’s dehydration state (1-6). Accordingly, they likely would be reaching their three-day fatal dehydration limits by the morning of July 5, 1937 if they had no access to fresh water. It is likely that on-board liquids, juice and water supplies would have extended their dehydration limits slightly beyond July 5, and indeed the final “post-loss” radio transmission occurred on July 7 (14).

False alarms: Tessie and the Bevington object

A crucial decision pilots must make in forced landing situations is to maintain enough unobstructed taxi distance given the airplane’s cruising speed and known safe touchdown speed. As she approached Gardner Island, it is estimated that Earhart’s cruising speed was between 100 and 130 mph (20), and her touchdown speed likely was between 63-65 mph (29, 37). Given that touchdown speed, her normal landing distance would have been between 1,000 and 2,500 feet (34, 37). On Gardner Island, the longest and safest unobstructed landing area was the coral atoll at low tide on the eastern side of the island which represents a near straightaway distance of 4.7 miles with no lagoon inlets, shipwrecks, or other obstacles (Figure 2). Earhart, flying in from the north, likely had more than enough time to reduce her cruising speed to the Electra’s recommended landing speed and still had more than sufficient distance to make a landing on the eastern side of the island. In contrast, the western side of the island was interrupted by two inlets into the lagoon, a non-linear coastline (Figure 4), and its northwest end was interrupted by a large shipwreck. Given these circumstances, the southeastern side of the island likely visually represented a safer landing area.

From contemporary observations of Nikumaroro Island, it is known that the eastern side of the island represents the windward side and frequently encounters strong cross winds as high as 15 knots, stronger surf and more standing water on the reef surface at low tide. Because Earhart and Noonan likely possessed no charts of Gardner Island, their brief surveillance of the island before landing may not have revealed these subtle landing details.

Thom Boughton, an experienced air traffic controller at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and former flight instructor at Kent State University had this to say about Amelia Earhart’s decision to land on Gardner Island:

“No doubt she did what anyone in that situation has ever done: she found what looked to be the longest, widest, smoothest, and dryest (sic). Everything else… be damned. You worry about that later.” (44)

Ric Gillespie, the executive director of TIGHAR responds to Thom Boughton’s comments:

Well put Thom. Having been in a few situations where I’ve had to contemplate an emergency landing, I have to agree. When you’re left with no option other than an ending the flight right now, the first and only consideration is safety.” (44)

Both Boughton and Gillespie are in apparent agreement that the “longest” uninterrupted straight away landing area on Gardner Island’s coral atoll would be the safest. In this regard the eastern side of Gardner Island is superior to the western side of the island (Figure 4).

In contrast, the commonly speculated (Figure 4) location for Earhart’s and Noonan’s landing area is not on the eastern side of the island, but rather on the western side about 400 meters north of the wreck of the Norwich City (13). Furthermore, if the Electra would had flown in from the north, then Google Maps shows that this landing strategy on Gardner Island gives Earhart and Noonan a bare minimum distance (~1,400 feet) on a wet, slippery coral reef to accommodate the estimated landing distance of 1,350 to 2,500 feet (37). A safer flight plan would be the 4.7-mile route on the eastern side of the island, landing from north to south. A north to south landing direction would counter the south to north aircraft slowing effect of any westward blowing winds and may have accelerated the prescribed landing speed of 63 to 65 mph, thereby exacerbating any landing decelerations experienced upon a pitted and rough coral reef.

The bias for the aircraft landing site at the northwest area of the island comes from an obscure object detected in a single photograph made by Eric Bevington in October 1937, three months after Earhart’s aircraft disappeared. Bevington was traveling with a British and Gilbertese Island group to determine which of the remote Phoenix islands might be suitable for colonization and settlement. While on Gardner Island from October 13-15, Bevington took a 2.5 by 3.5 photo showing the SS Norwich City shipwreck containing a small dot of an upright object to the left of the shipwreck (Figure 2). Initially, after its discovery and recognition in 2010, the object was named “Nessie” after the Loch Ness Monster but later called the “Bevington Object” which Jeff Glickman of Phototek Forensic Imaging in Woodinville, Washington, suggested was the landing gear and tire from Earhart’s Lockheed Electra Aircraft (18).

A senior photo analyst from the Imagery Center at the U.S. State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research unofficially examined the photo containing the “Bevington Object.” He was cautious with his analysis because the image came from a print and not from the original negative. Additionally, what puzzled the senior analyst was that the assembly seemed to be not only damaged but upside down.

He said: “The gear cannot still be attached to the airplane or we’d see more of the plane. If it’s detached from the plane, why is the heavy side up?” (18). He further said, “In this business we have three levels of certainty – Possible, Probable, Confirmed. That this photo shows the landing gear of a Lockheed Electra is somewhere between Possible and Probable”.

Note that the object was not “Confirmed.”

Additional problems with the hypothesis that the landing site was slightly north of the Norwich City wreck on the coral reef was that no evidence of remnants of the Electra have ever been found in the waters surrounding the presumed landing site. Robert Ballard, the famous oceanographer/geologist who discovered the Titanic and many other shipwrecks, recently (August 2019) returned empty-handed from Nikumaroro after extensive multi-scan sonar analyses along with a deep diving remotely operated vehicle (ROV) (35, 46). Ballard said, “We visually examined 100 percent of the island down to 750 meters (2,400 feet) and did not see evidence of the plane. We did 100 percent of the primary zone visually down to 900 meters (3,000 feet).” No plane! (35). Ballard doesn’t plan to return to Nikumaroro unless DNA or other definitive evidence is uncovered. However, he indicated that if he returns, he would search beaches further south.

Further, extensive visual and metal detector land searches of large areas on shore surrounding the suspected landing area on the northwestern part of the coral atoll have revealed no evidence of an Earhart/Noonan campsite (45). In contrast, the Seven Site on the southeastern side of the island (Figure 4) has archaeologically uncovered extensive data indicating human castaway occupation during the late 1930s (17).

It is inconceivable that under the severe dehydration conditions (likely average daylight high temperatures of 85 ° F, low mean nighttime temperatures of 74 ° F, 75 to 85 % relative humidity and 0.08 inch mean daily rainfall) that Earhart and Noonan suffered from July 2 to July 7 (6 days) that they walked daily to and from a location some 4 miles away of their original landing site without consuming water.

Given that Gardner Island has never been successfully colonized (for extended periods from 1892 to 1963) because of recurring draughts and an unstable freshwater lens, it is unlikely that Earhart and Noonan could have obtained physiologically meaningful amounts of water from their island environment, particularly since the estimated mean daily rainfall for Gardner Island in July of 1937 was likely 0.08 inches. Further, it was almost certainly impossible that they obtained daily amounts (1.5 to 1.8 liters/day) of fresh water required for optimal hydration.

One of the most important issues about Earhart’s specially modified Electra, which has been briefly addressed, is the buoyancy of her fully flooded aircraft (47). To date, no calculations have been published by TIGHAR or anyone else demonstrating the net density of Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10 E Special, NR16020 when the cabin was completely or partially flooded by seawater. Earhart’s all-metal airplane was largely constructed of aluminum, but it also contained two radial, air-cooled engines, various steel parts, assorted copper containing parts, and lead batteries, among other metals. Nevertheless, the mass and density of every metal component of the aircraft are not required to determine if the aircraft would float or sink when the cabin was fully flooded with seawater.

Archimedean Principle (used to calculate volume of an object) only requires that the mass of the airplane on land, the residual air volume in the aircraft’s empty gas tanks, the density of the airplane’s primary metal (aluminum, density = 2.7 g/cc), the density of seawater, and the underwater mass of the aircraft are needed to determine the airplane’s net density when the cabin was completely flooded with seawater (Equation 1).

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

If the net density of the aircraft was less than 1.025 g/cc, it would float. If the net density of the airplane was greater than 1.025 g/cc, it would sink. If the residual air volume in the gas tanks was not displaced by flooding seawater, then the aircraft would float indefinitely. Clearly, this was not the case. The auxiliary fuselage gas tanks were vented to the outside via tubes to the top of the airplane (Figure 3) and must have allowed seawater to enter the empty gas tanks and eventually sink the aircraft. Alternatively, the auxiliary fuselage tanks may have been ruptured upon the landing at Gardner Island which could have allowed for a more rapid sinking time of the aircraft.

Final days and final moments

Taken together with the “post-loss” radio signals (14), this information points to a situation in which the Electra became increasingly buoyant and flooded with saltwater after July 7, 1937 and would have eventually floated away as the July tide progressively rose (14). A normally configured Electra 10 without 4,357-liter fuel tanks would sink in saltwater after eight minutes (47). Because of its “super buoyancy” (Equation 1), Earhart’s Electra likely floated considerably longer than eight minutes after the tide dislodged it from its landing spot on the coral reef. Accordingly, the aircraft may have floated out to sea far away from the shoreline near the Seven Site location, before seawater eventually entered the fuel tanks’ venting tubes and caused the net density of the airplane to exceed the density of seawater (1.025 g/cc) and, therefore, sinking the airplane.

Given the crosswinds (sometimes up to 15 knots) that blow westward across the southeast portion of the Island, and the likely density of the aircraft after the cabin was fully flooded with seawater, the underwater resting place of the Lockheed Electra is likely more than a mile out to sea near the southernmost tip of the island in water deeper than 700 meters (2,400 feet).

The best evidence before Earhart disappeared is this; she was alive and present sporadically in the cockpit of her airplane from July 2, 1937 (6:55 p.m.) to June 7, 1937 (1:30 a.m.) as she made desperate radio pleas for help and assistance (14). Because of Fred’s serious and life-threatening injuries after landing July 2 at Gardner Island (14), along with his ensuing six-day severe dehydration, he almost certainly was “delirious” (14) or likely comatose and confined to the cabin of the Electra likely unable to exit the airplane for the shade of the shore at the Seven Site.

The last CBRD desperate transmission from Earhart occurred at 1:30 a.m. on July 7: “We have taken in water, my navigator is badly hurt; my navigator is badly hurt; we are in need of medical care and must have help; we can’t hold on much longer” (14). As the tide rose on the early morning of July 7, and began to raise Earhart’s Electra into the water, this brave woman almost certainly abandoned her aircraft to escape the drowning that Noonan likely certainly faced as he lay “delirious” (14) in the aircraft as it floated southeastward to the open sea.

No further radio transmissions were sent by Earhart after 1:30 a.m. on July 7, suggesting that the Electra had floated into the sea sometime later that morning, thereby making radio communications impossible (14). On the morning of July 9 (~8:15 a.m. Gardner local time), three U.S. Navy search planes from the battleship USS Colorado flew over Gardner Island and reported that no aircraft were seen (14). This data suggests that Fred likely floated out to sea with the Electra and drowned aboard it before July 9, if he had not already died previously from dehydration. Earhart, also likely in a severely dehydrated state, escaped to shore and lay down at the Seven Site where she likely died from severe dehydration or complicating factors sometime between July 8 and July 10, 1937.

The aftermath

One of the key pieces of (logic/evidence) in the Earhart disappearance, which has gone unrecognized, is the connection between the airplane’s landing place and the adjoining linkage to an onshore campsite.

Almost all the “post-loss” radio transmissions from July 2 to July 7 were sent by Earhart during the evenings and nights when the tides were low (14). Clearly during the daytime hours Earhart must have left the aircraft and the subsequent heat and humidity inside the all-metal Electra’s cabin and sought shade and cooling temperatures on shore. Accordingly, the data shows a predictable (with one or two exceptions) nighttime radio transmission scheme that followed a 12-hour daylight period (14).

Given this information, Earhart’s airplane’s location and her shoreside campsite location had to be adjacent to one another (from a time and distance basis) to accommodate the nightly radio transmissions aboard the aircraft and the subsequent daylight retreats to the shore. Because the only reasonable evidence for her campsite was Seven Site at this time (15-17), then the Electra must have landed close to Seven Site on the southeastern shore of Gardner Island and not on its northwestern shore where no campsite indication has ever been revealed (45) nor have remnants of the airplane been discovered (35, 46).

Consequently, it is not surprising that Robert Ballard and his crew aboard the E/V Nautilus did not find any evidence of Earhart’s airplane upon deep dives at Nikumaroro’s steep northwestern shores (35, 46). After his comprehensive search, Ballard indicated that if he returned to the island he would search further south (35).

The Seven Site location presents a complicated archaeological setting, made more difficult to interpret because no soil exists which stratigraphy can develop. Hence, archaeologists must interpret human activity in the uppermost 10 centimeters of coral rubble that makeup the site (17). The challenge to archaeologists, because the site was occupied historically at least four times from before 1940 until the 1950s (17), is to determine the human activity in the 10-centimeter layer where Earhart’s presumed remains were found (15-17).

The most complete archaeological analysis of Seven Site on Nikumaroro Island provides circumstantial evidence that the site was briefly occupied by a woman, most likely an American woman (17). The data demonstrates that: 1) someone ignited and maintained four campfires in sequence over a short period. How campsite fire ignition was achieved is unclear, but it is known that Earhart would have had access to Noonan’s (a known smoker, Figure 8) matches or cigarette lighter; 2) in the campfires at Seven Site, metal, beveled glass and rouge were uncovered consistent with a woman’s compact; 3) a small jar suspected of containing mercury based ointments to fade freckles was unearthed; 4) a zipper pull made by Talon company and dated to 1933-1936 may be consistent with a zippered bag onboard the Electra and 5) finally a woman’s shoe sole was discovered at Seven Site (48)

Water: The Most Important Nutrient, and How It Ultimately Determined Amelia Earhart's Final Fate image

Decades after Earhart’s presumed death at Seven Site in 1937, four forensic dogs brought to the site in 2017, alerted their owners that they had detected the scent of human remains (32). This was obviously long after the bones and human remains had decomposed. This data is consistent with modern anthropomorphic data (15-17) which likely pinpoints Amelia Earhart’s final resting place underneath a large ren tree on the southeast side of Gardner Island.

Amelia – Joni Mitchell


The drone of flying engines

Is a song so wild and blue

It scrambles time and seasons if it gets through to you

Amelia, it was just a false alarm

A ghost of aviation

She was swallowed by the sky

Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly

Like Icarus ascending

On beautiful foolish arms

Amelia, it was just a false alarm

Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms

Acknowledgements: I recognize Ric Gillespie, The Executive Director of TIGHAR, who generously read this manuscript and offered his helpful comments and edits.


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8. Randall S. Jacobson, Ph.D. The World Flight, Second Attempt: The Final Flight Part 2: Midpoint to the Vicinity of Howland.

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Part 3: At Howland Island. TIGHAR, The Earhart Project.

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11. Randall S. Jacobson, Ph.D. The World Flight, Second Attempt: Reconstructing the Flight.

12. Randall S. Jacobson, Ph.D. The 1937 Search. The Colorado Search.

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14. Richard Gillespie R & Robert Brandenburg. Post-loss radio signals catalog and analysis 2.0. TIGHAR, 2018, 8-30.

15. Jantz RL. Amelia Earhart and the Nikumaroro bones a 1941 analysis versus modern quantitative techniques. Forensic Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 2:83-98.

16. Richard B. Gillespie. Bones & Bias. TIGHAR TRACKS, The Journal of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery. February 2018, Volume 34 #1, pp 20-29.

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21. From TIGHAR. Lockheed Electra 10E Special – NR16020

22. Gillespie R, from TIGHAR forum. Timeline of the second round-the-world attempt. 3 March 2000.

23. Radio equipment on 16020.

24. Thompson W. Commanding Officer, Istasca, USCG. Radio Transcripts Earhart Flight, 19 Jul 1937. pdf

25. What is the significance of Earhart’s statement “We are on the line 157/337”?

26. Line of Position.

27. The Window, The Patch and the Artifact. Earhart Project Research Bulletin #73, October 28, 2014.

28. Photograph of SS Norwich City taken by Lindsay Loutet on 27 April 1928 at the Burrard Drydock Company at Vancouver, British Columbia.

29. The Lockheed “Electra”. Flight, January 25, 1934, pp 74-75.

30. Brandenburg, Bob. Analysis of Radio Direction Finder Bearings in the Search for Amelia Earhart. TIGHAR #2286.

31. Randall S. Jacobson, Ph.D. The World Flight, Second Attempt: The Forecast Weather.

32. Hartigan Shea R. Forensic dogs locate spot where Amelia Earhart may have died. July 7, 2017. spot-where-died/

33. Hartigan Shea, R. Colossal crabs may hold clue to Amelia Earhart fate. August 20, 2019.

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36. SS Norwich City.

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40. Nina Martyris. Amelia Earhart’s Travel Menu Relied On 3 Rules and People’s Generosity. NPR, The Salt, what’s on your plate.

41. ‘Stanley Super Vac’ thermos used by Nancy Bird Walton, 1935. Made 1930-1935.

42. Calvin Pitts analyzes Amelia Earhart’s last flight. By earharttruth, August 10, 2018.

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47. TIGHAR Forum. FAQ Electra Buoyancy, Ditching at Sea. Oct 15, 2011 to Oct 23, 2011.

48. Earhart Project Research Bulletin, February 2, 2004. Shoe Fetish, Part III.

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