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Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56 (2003) 203212

Beach response to shore-parallel breakwaters at Sea Palling, Norfolk, UK

F. Thomallaa,*, C.E. Vincenta

School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

Received 21 June 2001; received in revised form 28 December 2001; accepted 28 December 2001

Abstract The eects of four oshore breakwaters built between 1993 and 1995 at Sea Palling, Norfolk, UK, on beach morphology are discussed. The structures were built during the rst phase of a multi-phase construction programme and are expected to provide long-term protection for Sea Palling and 6000 ha of low-lying land against tidal inundation through the provision of a wide beach in front of the existing seawall and dunes. The results presented here span all stages of breakwater construction during Phase 1. Beach level changes were monitored during the period from 1995 to 1999. A Geographical Information System (GIS) was used to calculate differential surfaces between surveys in order to investigate local patterns of accretion and erosion and to determine volume changes between consecutive surveys. Additional data collected by the Environment Agency since 1991 were analysed to investigate beach and bathymetry changes prior to the construction of the breakwaters. In association with periodic nourishment programmes the scheme has been locally successful in retaining recharged sediment on the beach but the extent of the salients prevents to a great extent the south-eastward littoral drift. As a result, effects on the beaches, both down- and up-drift of the breakwaters, have been considerable. The continuing increase in beach volume indicated that by January 1999 equilibrium had not been reached. 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Coastal erosion; Flood protection; Sediment transport; East Anglia

1. Introduction Oshore breakwaters have been used to control shoreline evolution in many parts of the world, particularly in the US (Dally & Pope, 1986; Pope & Dean, 1987; Rosati, 1990; Rosati, Gravens, & Chasten, 1992), Japan (Kaji, Uda, & Suyama, 1989; Uda, 1988) and the Mediterranean (Berenguer & Enriquez, 1988). In the UK, this approach to coastal engineering is relatively new and only a few such schemes exist to-date (Barber & Davies, 1985; Cooper, King, & Hooke, 1996; King, Morfett, Pope, & Cooper, 1996; Loveless, 1986). Due to the lack of experience of offshore breakwaters in the UK, their role has been largely limited to provide localized protection to beaches and other coastal structures.

Brampton and Smallman (1985) suggest that offshore breakwaters have only recently been considered in the UK because most of the experience gained in their design and construction is in areas whose tidal range is very much lower than that found in British coastal waters. The large tidal range and the severe wave conditions which can occur at most parts of the UK coast also make the construction of breakwaters costly and have therefore limited the use of these structures (Pilarczyk & Zeidler, 1996). 2. Study area The coastline of East Anglia (Fig. 1), on the East Coast of England, has experienced considerable erosion throughout history. For the time period from 1880 to 1953, Halcrow (1988) calculated an average coastal retreat rate of 300 mm year1 between the villages of Happisburgh and Winterton (Fig. 1). For the same time period, the low-water line at Sea Palling has been retreating at rates of up to 1 m year1. The result was a

* Corresponding author. Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Telegrafenberg C4, P.O. Box 601 203, 14412 Postdam, Germany. Tel.: +49-331-288-2414; fax: +49-331-288-2642. E-mail address: frank.thomalla@pik-potsdam.de (F. Thomalla).

0272-7714/03/$ - see front matter 2003 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved. doi:10.1016/S0272-7714(02)00157-9


F. Thomalla, C.E. Vincent / Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56 (2003) 203212

Fig. 1. The East Anglian coastline and study location (adapted from Halcrow (1995b) and reproduced by kind permission of Ordnance Survey. Crown Copyright NC/01/358).

decrease in the width of the beach above the low-water level and a long-term reduction in beach volume of 75 000 m3 year1 over the 14 km frontage (Halcrow, 1991). Events of catastrophic tidal ooding have been recorded since medieval times and numerous coastal villages have been lost to the sea (e.g. Taylor & Marsden, 1983). A serious breach occurred at Sea Palling during the storm surge of 1953. Storm surges play an important role in the evolution of the East Anglian coastline as large-scale morphological changes can be caused by a single storm event. According to Cambers (1976), over 50% of the net erosion of the cliffs between Weybourne and Mundesley (near Cromer, Fig. 1) for a 3-year period occurred during a single storm surge. At Sea Palling, onshoreoffshore movement of beach material was estimated to be as much as 1 000 000 m3 per storm over the entire 14 km frontage (Halcrow, 1991). A predicted increase in storm frequency and the height of storm surge levels due to climate change are likely to have a profound impact on coastal erosion and serious consequences for the eectiveness of coastal protection and sea defence schemes in East Anglia in the near future. The problem is compounded by a predicted increase in average sea level around the UK coast. Current estimates of global average sea level rise between 1990 and 2100 are between 0.09 and 0.88 m (IPCC,

2001). Long-term vertical land movements in the region result from the removal of the ice sheets after the last ice age 15 000 years ago and cause an additional rise of relative sea level. The highest estimated rates of subsidence of up to 0.002 m year1 are for Norfolk and the Thames Estuary (Shennan, 1989). The combined effects of eustatic and isostatic sea-level changes are partially responsible for coastal retreat in the region. The East Anglian coastline has stretches of poorly consolidated Holocene clis, which erode and provide the sand supply for the beaches and dunes that protect areas of nearby low-lying land. Clayton, McCave, and Vincent (1983), based on Vincents transport model (Vincent, 1979), established a sand budget and estimated the effect of coastal defence works on long-shore transport rates and beach volumes. About 70% of the cliffs were defended by 1983, resulting in a reduction of the sediment supply to 7075% of its natural level (Clayton, 1989). Clayton (1989) put forward a theory that linked the low beach levels to the south of Happisburgh and at Sea Palling to the defence of the North Norfolk cliffs. This reduction in sediment supply through the combined effects of sea-level rise and cliff stabilization work has led in 1991 to concern about the integrity of the sea defences at Sea Palling. The frontage between Happisburgh and Winterton (Fig. 1) is relatively linear, facing toward the northeast.

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As a result, the coastline is exposed to a wide range of wave directions, from the northwest to the southeast. The lack of any signicant shelter means that large waves approach the site from most directions within this range (Halcrow, 1995a). The area is particularly vulnerable to storm surges, which approach the coastline from the north due to the virtually unlimited fetch in this direction. Beaches are extremely volatile and levels at the back of the beach can vary by up to 2 m during a single storm event. Modelling studies undertaken by Halcrow (1991) identied the principal cause of beach volatility to be waves with oblique incidence to the coast. In the last few decades and particularly in the last few years, erosion has lowered the beach level to such an extent that the stability of the sea wall was endangered, leaving the land vulnerable to attack and inundation by storm waves. The only protection to local villages and low-lying land, including the Norfolk Broads was a single line of sand dunes, fronted by a sea wall. Large areas of the Norfolk Broads are designated as Sites of Special Scientic Interest (SSSI), Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Sites) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) for whose protection the government is under statutory obligation. 2.1. The Sea Palling breakwaters In 1990, the National Rivers Authority, now the Environment Agency, implemented a 50-year sea defence strategy for 14 km of coastline in the area of greatest potential risk between the villages of Happisburgh and Winterton. The strategy is intended to protect several villages and ca. 6000 ha of low-lying land from tidal inundation and included the construction of a series of shore-parallel offshore breakwaters. These so-called reefs in conjunction with a beach nourishment programme were expected to maintain sufcient foreshore levels to ensure the stability of the sea wall. The primary function of the reefs is the protection of the coastline during extreme storm conditions by reducing the amount of wave energy reaching the shore. The geometrical parameters (Table 1), such as breakwater length, gap length and distance from the sea wall were determined on the basis of a desk study

Table 1 Geometric parameters of Reefs 58 at Sea Palling Breakwater length (m) 200 Gap length (m) 300 Crest level (m ODN) 3.0 Distance offshore (m) 275

and literature search on empirical relations and practical considerations (Delft, 1995). Design parameters used by Halcrow (1991) were largely based on the empirical relationships developed by Dally and Pope (1986), Herbich (1989), Ahrens and Cox (1990) and Suh and Dalrymple (1987). Based on these ndings, Halcrow (1991) concluded that the desired shoreline response of subdued salients would be achieved by using the following relationships: X=B 1:25 and G=B 1:5 where X is the distance of breakwater offshore, B, breakwater length and G is the gap length. Using X 275 m results in B 220 m (A length of 200 m was used by Halcrow (1991)). Therefore G 300 m. Fig. 2 shows the cross-section of a breakwater. Certain parameters, such as transmission coecients, overtopping and length-to-gap ratio were calculated by the consulting engineers (Halcrow, 1991) through extensive numerical and physical modelling to achieve a reduction of wave transmission to 60% during storm conditions. Onshoreoffshore transport was to be reduced to approximately 50% to enable the retention of recharged beach material. Overtopping was anticipated during storm conditions. To force wave breaking of the larger storm waves, a crest level of 3.0 m with reference to Ordnance Datum Newlyn (ODN) was adopted based on the assessment of structure transmission using physical model tests conducted by the Danish Hydraulics Institute (Halcrow, 1991). The structures were to withstand a 50-year surge level of 3.7 m ODN. The reefs were placed on an oshore bar outside the surf zone where sediment transport was thought to be insignicant. This required a distance from the sea wall of 275 m. Due to the exposure of the site and the relatively large inshore wave heights, the breakwaters were constructed of rocks weighing up to 16 t each.

Fig. 2. Cross-section of Reefs 58 (adapted from Halcrow, 1988).


F. Thomalla, C.E. Vincent / Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56 (2003) 203212

3. Methods and materials Biannual beach proles at 1-km intervals and 5yearly bathymetric proles at 1-km intervals have been surveyed by the Environment Agency as part of the regional Shoreline Management Strategy for East Anglia since 1991. From 1992 to 1995, beach surveys were undertaken at 100-m intervals. A strategic programme for the detailed monitoring of the Happisburgh to Winterton Scheme was adopted in 1995 after a report from the consulting engineers (Halcrow, 1995b), which stressed the need for a co-ordinated monitoring programme. These data were used to rene the sea defence strategy before the second phase of construction (Reefs 913) in 1996. Since 1996 beach levels have been

measured along proles spaced at 50-m intervals in the area most closely affected by the presence of the breakwaters (Fig. 3). Supplementary surveys of the beach were undertaken by one of the authors (henceforth referred to as F.T.) on a quarterly basis between 1995 and 1999 (Thomalla, personal communication). Measurements were made at high resolution on an irregular grid so that small-scale (cm) changes in the beach topography could be detected on a seasonal basis. Beach surveys concentrated on the beach behind the reefs and provided a basis for a more detailed study of the beach changes in the area directly aected by the structures. Measurements were made using a Nikon Total Station with an Electronic Distance Measurement device (EDM), sighting on a rod-mounted prism.

Fig. 3. Location of prole lines for biannual beach surveys undertaken by the Environment Agency (adapted from The Environment Agency, Copyright 1996, The Environment Agency and reproduced by kind permission of Ordnance Survey. Crown Copyright NC/01/358).

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3.1. Beach response 3.1.1. Prior to reef construction Prior to the construction of the reefs, the shoreline at Sea Palling was characterized by a steep and narrow beach, a shallow trough and a long-shore bar. There were signicant changes in the morphology of the littoral zone during the twelve months prior to the construction of the breakwaters (Fig. 5a). At Sea Palling severe beach erosion occurred between August 1992 and August 1993. Beach levels were reduced by up to 3.5 m and the beach narrowed from 50 to 60 m to 30 to 40 m. Between July 1992 and March 1993, more than 140 000 m3 of sediment were eroded from the beach between Happisburgh and Winterton. At the same time, the total sediment volume of the near-shore area in the study area to a distance of 500 m offshore was reduced by ca. 400 000 m3. Comparison of the surfaces computed for the two 6-month time periods from August 1992 to January 1993 and January 1993 to August 1993 indicated that changes from signicant erosion to signicant accretion and vice versa occurred quite commonly on a local scale, indicating the extreme volatility of the beach. 3.1.2. During reef construction Fig. 5b represents changes in beach and seabed level over the 2-year construction period from August 1993 to August 1995. Shoreward of the reefs, alternating with areas of accretion, erosion of up to 4 m occurred in places

Fig. 4. Areas dened for volume calculations.

Changes in the morphology of the littoral zone at Sea Palling in response to the construction of Reefs 58 were investigated for the time period from August 1992 to January 1999. The evolution of the beach planform is presented using Geographical Information System (GIS)-generated plots of the bathymetry and dierential surfaces calculated between selected surveys. The volume of material contained within two areas inshore and two areas seaward of the reefs was calculated using a cutll operation in GIS (for detailed methodology see Thomalla, personal communication) and the results are presented here as time series. The long-shore and cross-shore boundaries dened for this operation are shown in Fig. 4 and the datum level used was 1.73 m (MLWS) for Areas 1 and 2, and 10.00 m for Areas 3 and 4. Finally, an assessment of the impact of the reefs to the adjacent shoreline was made.

Fig. 5. (a) Changes in bathymetry (in m) between August 1992 and August 1993. Shaded areas have no signicant change (<0.25 m). White areas with solid lines are accretion; those with dashed lines represent erosion. (b) Changes from August 1993 to August 1995 during breakwater construction.


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near the sea wall. Retreat of the shoreline occurred in the gaps, particularly between Reefs 7 and 8. This is a problem frequently caused by the construction of offshore breakwaters and can cause overtopping of the sea wall and/or scouring at its foot (Uda, 1988). The accretionary patterns indicate the development of a bay/ salient planform typical of a segmented breakwatersystem. This rapid initial response has also been observed at Elmer beach in West Sussex (King et al., 1996), where the majority of the changes occurred within the rst few months. This response time ts in well with values shown in the literature. According to Herbich (1989), ca. 50% of the sand volume behind a breakwater is deposited in the rst year and a steady state is reached in 45 years. This process may be accelerated by beach nourishment, as was the case at Sea Palling. Delft (1995) expected that a dynamic equilibrium situation would be reached some 35 years after the completion of the reefs. Signicant accretion was observed in the shelter of, and to the north of, Reef 5, giving an early indication of the effectiveness of the structures to trap sediment at the up-drift end. Volume calculations by the author indicate that as much as 67 300 m3 of material accumulated behind Reef 5, compared with only 24 100 m3 behind Reef 6. Accretion behind Reef 5 occurred to a distance of ca. 400 m offshore causing the beach to increase in width from 40 to almost 70 m. 3.1.3. Changes following the completion of the reefs In January 1996, 5 months after the completion of the engineering works, the oshore bar had disappeared in the gaps between the reefs and the growth of the salients

continued. Fig. 6a shows the bathymetry in January 1996. Eorts were made to retain sediment on the beach between the salients by immersing two parallel rows of granitic rocks in the sand and lling the geo-textile lined gap with smaller rocks and gravel. Following this emergency measure, ca. 1.3 Mm3 of sand were pumped onto the beach behind Reefs 58 in October and November 1996. As a result, beach levels increased by more than 4.0 m in places in the bays between Reefs 5 and 6 and Reefs 7 and 8 (Fig. 6b). Erosion continued on the seabed in the bays: as much as 2.0 to 2.5 m of material were removed within large areas in the bays between Reefs 6 and 7 and Reefs 7 and 8. Fig. 6b shows that the bays between the salients increased in size from north to south, which may be related to the supply of sediment available in each bay. As the sediment passes through the system predominantly from north to south, a large proportion appears to get trapped by the rst tombolo, so that less sediment is available for each consecutive bay. The bays also exhibited a slight asymmetry with a stronger curvature on the southern half of each bay. The bay shape is dependent on the angle of wave approach, whereby the beach planform alters in response to the changing diffraction patterns of the waves around the reefs. According to Silvester and Hsu (1993), the bays are in dynamic equilibrium when littoral drift continues through them and in static equilibrium when there is zero long-shore transport. Eects of the reefs on the adjacent shoreline. The original strategy included the construction of four more

Fig. 6. (a) Bathymetry January 1996, after completion of the breakwaters. (b) January 1997 after two beach recharge operations in October and November 1996.

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reefs to the north of Reef 5. Because Reef 5 eectively trapped large amounts of sediment and signicantly reduced the amount of long-shore drift along the shoreline, a benecial eect on the up-drift shoreline was anticipated. As a result, the construction of these reefs was postponed. Until July 1997, however, accretion was restricted to a relatively small area north of Reef 5. North of 200 m there was only limited accretion above the low-water line. An analysis undertaken by Halcrow (1995c) indicated that after the completion of Reefs 58, an approximately 1.5 km adjacent frontage Southeast of Sea Palling was affected by severe erosion. The beach along this frontage was recharged in the spring of 1996 and again in December of the same year in order to provide stability to the seawall. The construction of Reefs 913 was begun shortly after. Long-term volumetric changes. In the area in the centre of the bay between Reefs 5 and 6 (Area 1, Figs. 4 and 7) the beach was greatly affected by the erosion that occurred in the winter months in 1993. A total of 13 500 m3 of material were eroded between January 1992 and January 1993. By the following summer, most of that volume was recovered. Signicant erosion occurred during the construction of the reefs, particularly between August 1994 and January 1995, when 15 400 m3 were lost from the area. The timing of the erosion might be coupled with the completion of Reefs 5 and 6 at about that time. The amount of material remained relatively constant after that until the beach recharge in the spring of 1996. Volume increase as a result of the recharge was calculated from Environment Agency data to be 35 700 m3. Calculations made from F.T. survey data gave a more conservative result of 21 200 m3. The data collected in this study also indicated erosion of 4600 m3 between May and August 1996, which was not resolved in the Agencys biannual survey data. The second beach recharge activity which included the entire length of the frontage behind Reefs 5 to 8 resulted in

an increase in volume of 34 700 m3. These data (F.T.) indicate that after the second beach recharge the volume remained remarkably stable until April 1998 suggesting mainly redistribution. The Environment Agency data, however, show an increase in volume of 10 100 m3 between the April and the July 1998 surveys. The reduction by 2800 m3 between July 1998 and January 1999 is within the calculated error and it is therefore not clear whether there is still a net volume increase in this area of the beach. After an initial reduction of 26 700 m3 in the volume of Area 2 (Figs. 4 and 8), between January 1992 and January 1993, the evolution of the area was characterized by a continuous increase in volume due to the growth of the salient behind Reef 6. The volume in this area increased from 34 900 m3 more than four-fold to 156 000 m3 over the 6-year period. Excluding beach nourishment, the most signicant increase (10 800 m3) occurred in the 6 months between August 1994 and January 1995. This sudden increase may have been caused by the construction of Reef 6. The beach recharge activities in the autumn of 1996 resulted in an increase in volume of 44 000 m3 in this area. Since the beach recharge there has been a continuous net increase in volume suggesting that a steady state has not yet been reached. Seaward of the structures there was a marked decrease in the volume in Areas 3 and 4 (Figs. 4 and 9) between the August 1992 and January 1993 surveys, associated with the erosion affecting most of the area but a recovery of August 1992 levels by August 1993. After the start of the construction of Reefs 58 in August 1993, the volumes within the two areas changed rather differently. Whereas the volume in Area 4 remained relatively constant until January 1995, there was a signicant decrease in the volume in Area 3. Between January 1995 and August 1995, the volume increased in Area 3 and decreased to a similar extent in Area 4. After the completion of the reefs the volume

Fig. 7. Long-term time series of beach volume in the centre of the bay between Reefs 5 and 6 (Area 1) calculated from Environment Agency surveys (thin line) and the authors surveys (wide line). Time brackets of important engineering and beach management works are indicated on the chart. Error bars are 3000 m3. EA survey; F.T. survey.


F. Thomalla, C.E. Vincent / Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56 (2003) 203212

Fig. 8. Long-term time series of beach volume in the salient behind Reef 6 (Area 2) calculated from Environment Agency surveys (thin line) and the authors surveys (wide line). Time brackets of important engineering and beach management works are indicated on the chart. Error bars are 3000 m3. EA survey; F.T. survey.

remained constant (within the error margin) in Area 4. In Area 3 there was a loss of 15 400 m3 between August 1995 and July 1997. It has already been documented (Fig. 5b) that severe erosion occurred in the gaps during reef construction due to erosion of the offshore bar. The decrease in volume in Area 3 is most likely associated with this process. Fig. 5b shows that the areas to seaward of Reef 7 and 8 were most severely affected by erosion at that time. By July 1998, however, most of the material was recovered.

4. Conclusions Following the construction of the reefs, well-developed salients formed in the sheltered areas behind the structures. The reefs substantially reduced cross-shore transport by trapping material, which had previously moved oshore during the winter months. The obstruc-

tion caused by the reefs resulted in the disappearance of the long-shore bar and trough system. The absence of the bar to force wave breaking resulted in the development of a steep reective beach between the salients. High waves were now able to penetrate close inshore causing a lowering of the beach in these places. Here, the maintenance of a beach with a sucient berm and crest level was problematic and had to be addressed using secondary beach management such as the construction of sand-retaining structures on the beach and sediment recharge. Following the beach recharge, extensive accretion continued behind the reefs and resulted in the formation of tidal tombolos. The scheme appears to be performing well in retaining sediment on the beach, but the extent of the tombolos suggests that little or no sand is being transported past the breakwaters. This has caused signicant erosion to the beaches down-drift of Sea Palling. It is unclear whether the material that arrives from the north-west simply accumulates

Fig. 9. Long-term time series of beach volume seaward of the Reefs (Areas 3 and 4) calculated from Environment Agency bathymetric surveys. Time brackets of important engineering and beach management works are indicated on the chart. Error bars are 3000 m3. Area 3; Area 4.

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to increase the volume of material in the tombolos, or whether some material may be transported oshore through a circulation pattern within the embayments. Beach response during the construction and after the beach recharge was rapid, with most of the change occurring in the rst six months. This agrees well with time scales of beach response given in the literature (Herbich, 1989) and observations made at Elmer beach (King et al., 1996). Beach changes between April 1997 and January 1999 indicate signicant seasonal changes. Axe and Chadwick (1997) observed similar seasonal beach congurations at Elmer beach where, in the winter, the material was stored as raised beach levels in the bay oors and on the up-drift slopes of the embayments, and in the summer, the berm was rebuilt primarily on the up-drift sides of the salients and on the down-drift sides of the embayments. A continuing increase in the beach volume, particularly of the tombolos suggests that equilibrium has not been reached. This is in contrast to the observations made by King et al. (1996) who found that after the rst 6 months the beach at Elmer remained relatively stable over a period of 2 years. The most extreme changes were observed behind Reefs 5 and 8. The salient behind Reef 5 is very exposed, particularly to the most destructive waves approaching the shoreline from the north. Due to the sheltering eect of the reefs the salients to the southeast of Reef 5 are much more stable despite the fact that they receive signicantly less sediment by long-shore drift. The monitoring of beach prole evolution is an important and valuable asset in the evaluation of the performance of the sea defence strategy. The survey data were useful in obtaining an insight into the morphodynamic behaviour of the beach at Sea Palling. Further survey work is required, over a longer period of time, in order to assess the likely long-term impact of the scheme on the coastline. Of particular interest is the performance of the reefs during storm conditions, particularly when fetch-unlimited storm waves approach from the north. Such conditions have not occurred since the reefs were built but they have been particularly devastating to beach levels along this frontage and have caused severe ooding in the past. Hence, there is a strong need to monitor beach changes during storm events in order to assess the impact of high waves and to evaluate the performance of the scheme under extreme conditions.

David Welsh from the Environment Agency for providing beach survey and wave data. Steve Hayman also provided valuable guidance and advice. Ben Hamer from Halcrow Maritime is thanked for providing additional information about the sea defences. Phil Judge helped in the production of the diagrams. The authors are grateful to the Cambridge Coastal Research Unit, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge for providing the resources for publishing this research.

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Acknowledgements The work presented in this paper has been made possible by the University of East Anglia through the provision of a PhD studentship between 1995 and 1998. The authors would like to thank Steve Hayman and


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