Monthly Archives: December 2012

¿Cuál es el significado de las pascuas o poinsettias?

Por Luz V. García, M.S., M.E.

Qué bonitas se ven las pascuas como adorno navideño en nuestra tradición hispana. Las pascuas son plantas nativas de México. Y en  México se le dio el nombre de poinsettia por motivo del primer  embajador estadounidense, Joel Roberts Poinsett quien descubrió  la planta en 1828.

Pero la referencia  original a esta planta se remonta  a los tiempos del emperador azteca Montezuma, quien en el  siglo 15 pedía que le trajeran las pascuas a la ciudad de México en caravana, ya que la planta no crecían en la tierras de altas altitudes donde está localizada la ciudad capital. Pero los  aztecas llamaban a la planta CUITLAXOCHITL que significa ”Flor de Estrella” y en aquel tiempo se le llamó Euphorbia pulcherrima que significa “ La más hermosa”. Los aztecas extraían el jugo lechoso blanco de la planta como  medicamento para la fiebre  y extraían  el pigmento rojo para colorear la ropa y los cosméticos.

Se dice que en México desde el siglo 16 fueron los monjes franciscanos quienes comenzaron la tradición de a utilizar las pascuas  para la decoración navideña. Desde el siglo 17, los mexicanos  celebran también el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe el 12 de diciembre  y la Poinsettia es  llamada la  Flor de Nochebuena.  Hay una leyenda  en México que cuenta que en la víspera de Nochebuena se acostumbraba a dejar regalos frente a la  imagen del  niño  Jesús en el pesebre frente a la iglesia.  Se dice que dos niños pobres—un niño y una niña– no tenían nada que ofrecer, así que dejaron la planta verde de pascuas frente al altar y cuando amaneció el día de la Navidad, la pascua  se había convertido en un brillante color rojo.

Las primeras notas científicas en México sobre la planta Poinsettia aparecen en el siglo 17 por del botanista Juan Balme.
Pero para los habitantes de Estados Unidos, la “ poinsettia”  está asociada con las estación invernal.

En Estados Unidos, la Cámara de representantes proclamó en julio de 2002, el “Día de la Poinsettia” en honor a Paul Ecke Jr quien en 1900 descubrió una técnica que permite la reproducción en masa a través de las semillas. Es por eso es que en EEUU se hace posible  conseguir las plantas en invierno.   Con la producción en masa se han creado nueva variedades en  colores desde el rosado, al blanco y hasta el azul.

¿Qué representa para usted las pascuas en la Navidad? Para mí significa una flor que anuncia la llegada de la Navidad. No importa, de donde provengan  nuestras pascuas, la verdad es que disfrutamos su variedad en colores y si tenemos suerte, podemos cultivarlas para las próximas navidades.

Acerca del autor: Ms. Luz V. García es una científica que tiene una maestría y pos-grados en ingeniería ambiental que ha trabajado en los programas de RCRA, Superfund, Pesticidas y Sustancias Tóxicas. Actualmente trabaja en la división de acatamiento y cumplimiento del derecho ambiental en la Región 2 de EPA en Nueva York.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Recycling Sandy’s Trees

In response to Hurricane Sandy, EPA has been supporting FEMA and working closely with federal agencies and the states of New Jersey and New York to assess damage and respond to environmental concerns. In some areas, storm damage is widespread and the first and immediate priority is the protection of people’s health and their safety. To see more about EPA’s activities in response to Hurricane Sandy please visit www.epa.gov/sandy

Using a portable sawmill to cut the logs. EPA photo via Stan Stephansen

By Stan Stephansen

The headlines read “Hurricane Sandy Downs Thousands of Trees, creates havoc and destruction,”  “Record number of trees downed by Hurricane Sandy,” “10,000 trees downed in NYC alone.”  What a waste, or is it?

What happened to all those trees?  Are they still lying on the ground?  Were they cut up and carted off to take up space at the landfill?  Or is there some way these trees could be reused and recycled?

I asked myself that same question several years ago when I needed to remove several oak trees that were either dying or dangerously close to my house.  It turns out that, yes, indeed, many of the downed trees can and should be recycled and re-purposed.   I was able to turn the downed trees into structural timbers, flooring, molding, and bookshelves.  The large branches were cut into firewood and the smaller branches and leaves were turned into mulch.  I also replanted trees, but this time further away from the house.

The first step in tree recycling is to evaluate the trees and determine which ones are good candidates for recycling.  Generally, the tree should be healthy, not rotten, with few embedded objects like nails, of good size with a straight trunk and few low branches.  Right off I was able to save hundreds of dollars by not having the tree service cut up the tree trunks for subsequent trucking and disposal at the landfill.

Next step is to have the logs cut into rough lumber for subsequent reuse.  This can be accomplished by using a portable sawmill, or in my case having someone with a portable sawmill come to the location and cut the logs into rough boards of the appropriate dimensions.  For flooring and molding, I had the logs cut into boards about one and one half inches thick, which I then loaded onto a trailer and delivered to a regional sawmill in the Catskills for subsequent drying and finishing (surface planing and grooving), so that the final product was beautiful 5 inch wide red and white oak flooring ready to be put down in my bedroom and walk-in closet.  Other finished boards were used for molding around new windows and doors.  Another approach is to simply truck the logs to the sawmill for rough cutting, drying, and finishing.  Two sources of information I found useful were the book “Harvesting Urban Timber, A Complete Guide” by Sam Sherrill and “Recycling Municipal Trees, A Guide for Marketing Sawlogs from Street Tree Removals in Municipalities”.

With all of the downed trees from Hurricane Sandy, and thousands of downed trees expected from future storms, it may be more efficient and sustainable to try and recycle these logs on a more local or regional level.  Partnerships could be developed with municipalities, homeowners, utility companies, parks departments, recycling departments, nonprofits, and trade and technical schools to help create local jobs to help improve both the local economy and the environment.

About the author: Stan Stephansen is a Scientist in the EPA Region 2 office in Manhattan.  Stan has worked for EPA for 23 years in a variety of positions.  In his current capacity, Stan is working with our partner states to help municipalities develop plans to reduce sewage overflows caused by heavy wet weather events.  Prior to EPA, Stan worked as a geophysicist and computer analyst/programmer.  Stan is a graduate of Brooklyn College and currently resides in Wayne, NJ.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Meaning of Poinsettias

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By Luz V. García, MS,

How beautiful is the view of poinsettias as a seasonal arrangement in our homes!

Poinsettias are native plants from Mexico. In Mexico they celebrate Poinsettia Day, on December 12, a tradition that began after the first American Ambassador to Mexico, Joel Roberts Poinsett discovered the plant in 1828.

But the first references to this plant go way back to the times of Aztec emperor Montezuma who in the 15 Century demanded that Poinsenttias be brought to the City of Mexico from lower lands in Mexico. The Aztecs called the plant “ CUITLAXOCHITL” that means ”Star Flower” and back then the plant was given the scientific name “Euphorbia pulcherrima” which means “ the most beautiful”. Aztecs used the white milky suds of the plant as a medicine for fever and extracted the pigment for makeup and also to dye their clothes..

But it was in the 16th century that the Franciscan Monks in Mexico began the tradition of using poinsettias for Christmas decorations. In the 17 Century, Mexicans celebrated the Day of the Lady of Guadalupe also on December 12 and they call the poinsettia the” Flower of Christmas Eve “. There is a Mexican legend that talks about two children, a boy and a girl, who had nothing to take to the Church Nativity Scene on Christmas Eve, but left a green poinsettia plant as their gift. According to the legend on Christmas morning, the leaves of their poinsettia had turned into a bright red color.

The first scientific records in Mexico about poinsettias were written in the 17 Century, by botanist Juan Balme.

In USA, the U.S. House of Representative proclaimed in July 2002 “Poinsettia Day” in honor of Paul Ecke Jr who in 1900 discovered a technique that allows the reproduction in mass through poinsettia seeds. That is why it is so easy to find this plant here in US during winter season. The world production of this plant has increased considerably and now we can see a variety of colors, from rose to white and even blue.

What is the meaning of poinsettias to you? For me, it represents a flower that announces the beginning of Christmas season. It does not matter, where our poinsettias come from, the truth is that we enjoy them in a variety of colors and if we are fortunate to cultivate them throughout the year.

About the author:  Ms. Luz V. García M.E. is a physical scientist at EPA’s Division of Enforcement of Compliance Assistance. She is a four-time recipient of the EPA bronze medal, most recently in 2011 for the discovery of illegal pesticides entry at U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New York.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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All I Want for Christmas is…Some Water Saving Tips

By Christina Catanese

This weekend was one of major holiday prep for me.  I did laundry.  I cleaned the house.  I baked.  I washed dishes.  I cooked.  I washed more dishes.  I did some holiday arts and crafts.  I had some friends over for dinner.  I washed even more dishes.  I did even more laundry washing the towels and sheets used by early holiday guests that had come and gone.  Around the third round of washing dishes (incidentally, my least favorite household task), I realized that most of the things I was doing involved using a whole lot of water.

‘Tis the season to be doing a lot of entertaining, and that can involve more water use than usual.  Here are some tips for conserving water and energy this holiday season:

While you’re eating:The dishes never end!

  • Don’t run the tap when washing dishes.  Plugging the drain, filling the sink with soapy water, and scrubbing and rinsing from there can reduce how much water you use cleaning all those holiday pots, pans, and dishes.
  • Most dishwashers will clean your plates just fine if you just scrape off food scraps and put them right in the dishwasher. So you don’t need to double down on your water use by rinsing dishes in the sink before putting them in the dishwasher.
  • Speaking of food scraps, food waste tends to spike in the holiday season.  This impacts our water resources indirectly – all the water and resources put into the growing, manufacturing, and selling of our food goes to waste if the food ends up in a landfill.  Learn more about how you can reduce food waste.  You can also add certain food scraps to a compost pile if you have one instead of using a garbage disposal, which uses water and adds the mashed up food to the wastewater stream to be treated.
  • To reduce the number of loads of dishes you have to do, make sure that your dishwasher is fully loaded every time you run it.  Use the water saving settings if your appliance has them.
  • Save water and the energy used by your hot water heater by thawing foods in the microwave or overnight in the fridge, instead of running hot water over them.
  • The amount of water wasted while you let it run until it’s cool can really add up.  To have nice cool water for your holiday meals, fill a pitcher with water a few hours before and store it in the fridge until dinner time.

While you’re cleaning:

  • Save water (and make that pile of laundry disappear a little faster) by only washing and drying full loads every time, and using the appropriate setting on your machine to the size of the load you’re washing.
  • Using cold water whenever possible can reduce the energy needed to wash your clothes, as well as your energy bills.

Happy Holidays!While you’re shopping:

  • If you’re anything like me, you’re doing some last-minute, crazed holiday shopping and could use some inspiration for gift ideas.  Water-efficient appliances can make great gifts!  Faucet aerators are small and reasonably priced – perfect for a stocking stuffer!  Water-efficient showerheads, too.
  • A rain barrel could also be a great gift to help your loved ones conserve water during the summer months, although you’ll need a pretty big stocking for that one, and it might not fit down the chimney.
  • Looking for a bigger ticket item and long-term investment?  Check out Water Sense for efficient toilets and other appliances, and Energy Star for efficient washing machines and dishwashers.

How are you saving water this holiday season?  Tell us in the comments section.

About the Author: Christina Catanese has worked at EPA since 2010, in the Water Protection Division’s Office of Program Support. Originally from Pittsburgh, Christina has lived in Philadelphia since attending the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied Environmental Studies, Political Science, and Hydrogeology. When not in the office, Christina enjoys performing, choreographing and teaching modern dance.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Shifting Without Datum Documentation

By Casey J. McLaughlin

Most of us take for granted that latitude and longitude always mean the same place on a map but is that true?  I started thinking about GPS points and how a simple hand held (or my phone) may have an error of +/- several feet.  Now I am wondering if the fuss I make about specifying Datum is worthwhile….

Claudius Ptolemy: The World, 1482 (Wikipedia)

A Datum, defined by Webster’s is generally “something used as a basis for calculating or measuring.”  Ah ha! I had never thought outside of the geographic usage of the word but I find understanding word roots can be quite helpful.  What I really mean is what impact a Geodetic Datum has on latitude/longitude pairs.  A Geodetic Datum is “the reference point for the various coordinate systems used in mapping the earth” (Geography.about.com).  The Earth isn’t perfectly round and geodetic datums form the mathematical basis for modeling our home.

Meades Range Marker, Kansas (geocaching.com)

There are several datums which I see most frequently; NAD27, NAD83, and WGS1984.  The NAD27 (North American Datum 1927) is interesting from a Region 7 perspective because its origin point is a survey point in Kansas – Meades Ranch (approx. 39.224087, -98.542152).   Just for reference, the geometric center of the contiguous U.S. is also in Kansas! Once we began using high precision remote sensing technology, we needed a new datum – NAD83 (North American Datum 1983) was born.  NAD83 has its origin defined by the Earth’s center of mass.  The two systems are different enough that a given latitude/longitude could be several meters off – depending on the distance from the datum!  Today, the World Geodetic System (WGS) 1984 Web Mercator is commonly used – I believe most major web platforms use it.

The main point I’m getting at here is that documenting the coordinate system information of geospatial data IS important.  I have seen more than one dataset come in without proper documentation.  To map it, I have to assume what datum is used – it wasn’t recorded.  Please, if you’re collecting spatial data, don’t complicate it with incomplete information!  Documenting our data collections is vital for using data with confidence and ensuring future data reuse.

For more information on Geodesy and such, check out:

Casey McLaughlin is a first generation Geospatial Enthusiast who has worked with EPA since 2003 as a contractor and now as the Regional GIS Lead. He currently holds the rank of #1 GISer in EPA Region 7′s Environmental Services Division.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Revisiting the Country Mouse

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By Kelsey Sollner

As my semester in Washington, DC comes to a close, I’ll get a little reminiscent about what a great time I had. I wrote a post when I first arrived and would like to update you. Initially anxious and mystified by city living, I now think of it as second nature.

I could walk or use public transportation to get anywhere I needed to go, and I could sleep more soundly at night knowing I was doing the environment some good by leaving my car at home in New Jersey. Speaking of sleep, I can now fall asleep to urban noise, and I wonder if I’ll miss it. I will admit: my body took a while to get used to city air—I was sneezing and coughing a lot those first few weeks! But I toughed it out; I wouldn’t let a little sinus trouble keep me from getting outside and soaking in the hustle and bustle of DC.

I was never bored. In the nation’s capital, monotony was one thing I never had to tackle. To make sure I was making the most of my time here, I used an old trick to adapt: I gave myself something to look forward to every day. I kept a calendar of big and small upcoming events (friends visiting, community service opportunities, street festivals, holiday events, neighborhood gatherings) and lived one day at a time, enjoying the present.

My internship sharpened me up, too. I felt that my work and I were fully engaged in the EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment. I am proud to be part of such a creative, dedicated team. I’ll carry everything I learned from them with me for the rest of my life.

One of the best semesters I’ve ever had culminated with a meteor shower that, even with a view clouded by city lights, I was able to enjoy from my balcony. It was the perfect finale for an eventful semester studded with valuable life lessons and hard work. Nonetheless, now I can look forward to stargazing under my familiar country sky.
DC, I’ll miss you, but I know I’ll be seeing you soon!

About the author: Kelsey Sollner is a senior from Susquehanna University majoring in journalism. She works as an intern in the EPA’s Office of Web Communications.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Bringing the Textbook to Life

By: Crystal Avila

As a student, I have always been attracted to science. Whether it was because it fascinated me or because I was good at it I don’t know, but science was a class I always enjoyed, and still do.

When I was younger, field trips were just a more interesting way to spend my school day, but now as an AP science student at Pioneer Valley High School, I understand the educational value that comes with some field trips. Reading a textbook every night isn’t a typical teenager’s favorite thing to do, but I can say that seeing the textbook come to life is pretty amazing. Over the course of the semester my AP Environmental Science class has been on four field trips. My favorite, and most recent, field trip was to Windset Farms, the world’s most efficient greenhouse. And amazingly, it was about ten miles from my school’s campus. It was definitely amazing to see all the major themes I’m learning in class like IPM (integrated pest management), reducing emissions, improving efficiency, and conserving water being put to use in a greenhouse in my community. It was incredible to see the themes I read about actually helping a company thrive and helping save the environment at the same time. Sometimes I doubted it was possible, but I was proved wrong.

 Another aspect of field trips introduced to me by AP Biology and Environmental Science teacher Mr. Magni, is guest speakers. Hearing information first hand from people who work jobs that are relevant to the material we’re learning about really helps put things in perspective. In the textbook, some things like oil well testing don’t seem super important, but after a lecture by a person who’s job is reading those test results, I came to realize how important every detail of a process is.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a teacher dedicated to enriching my classes’ experiences with science by giving us opportunities to expand our knowledge and see that the things we learn about in class. I have learned how topics like oil, marine pollution, and high-tech agriculture affect our area and the people whose livelihoods are dependent on them. It’s an eye-opening experience to see the things I’ve been learning over the semester in a variety of different jobs by having the opportunity to go visit on a field trip.

About the author: Crystal  is a 17 year old senior that attends Pioneer Valley High School.  In her spare time when she is not playing tennis for the school’s varsity team or studying for AP tests, Crystal loves going to drive-in movies, dancing, and shopping for shoes.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Fostering the Science and the “Art” of Innovation

By Dustin Renwick

From Microsoft to Intuit to Ferrari, companies around the world have learned that innovation lives throughout a healthy organization.

Two years ago, EPA wanted to begin a change that would inspire more innovation in its research labs by pushing scientists to think about transformational projects.

In other words, EPA leaders wanted to ignite the passion and wonder that accompanies great science and replace ordinary thinking with “Wouldn’t it be amazing if EPA could . . . ?”

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPs) were created as an internal competition to empower EPA scientists and researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects.

This model dates back to at least 1948, when 3M encouraged its employees to spend 15 percent of their time on projects they found rewarding. A cultural icon, the Post-It, was among the results from that radical notion of giving employees like Art Fry the freedom to explore and tinker.

Through our first two years, 22 PIP proposals were selected from nearly 200 applications. These teams received seed funding and time to carry out pilot projects ranging from satellite-based coastal monitoring to novel methods for breaking down plastics.

Submissions are judged each year by an external panel, which takes into account a proposal’s:

  • Relevance to the Agency’s mission to protect human health and the environment.
  • Potential to dramatically change how EPA solves environmental problems.
  • Potential for significant progress toward sustainability and advancing EPA’s strategies.

Teams from the first year of PIP have submitted their final reports, and second year projects continue. The submission period for our third year closed at Thanksgiving, and those proposals are currently being judged.

I’ll periodically highlight some of the innovative ideas here on It All Starts with Science, so be sure to check back later. You can even use a Post-it to remind yourself.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Celebrating Six Years of RAD Partnership

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By Gene Rodrigues

They say that you can judge a person by the company he or she keeps. That’s true for businesses as well, and it’s why we’re so proud to be one of 50 utilities, retailers, manufacturers and states that have a strong commitment to appliance recycling – among other energy efficiency programs — that will lead the country to its great green future. Today we celebrate the sixth anniversary of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Responsible Appliance Disposal (RAD) program.

California utilities were on the forefront of appliance recycling programs more than 20 years ago (we’ve been a RAD partner since 2006), and in May, Southern California Edison customers recycled their 1 millionth refrigerator or freezer.

Through this program, everybody wins. The customer’s electric bills are lowered when they replace an old, inefficient refrigerator with an ENERGY STAR-qualified one that doesn’t have to work as hard to keep food cool. The utility wins because the cheapest kilowatt hour is the one you never use. And the environment wins because there are fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants that enter the atmosphere, as well as less material that’s sent to landfills. Consider that SCE customers saved a total of 7.9 billion kilowatt-hours when they recycled their 1 millionth refrigerator. That is equivalent to avoiding emissions of 1.1 million cars for a year, planting 140 million trees, and saving enough energy to power 13.5 million homes for a month. And of course, collectively, those customers saved around $1 billion.

There are more opportunities than ever to become energy efficient, no matter who you are – homeowner or renter or business, country or city dweller. Take the first step today and visit your utility’s website to find out how you can contribute to America’s great green future.

About the author: Gene Rodrigues is Director of Customer Energy Efficiency & Solar for Southern California Edison. Gene serves on the boards of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, the China-US Energy Efficiency Alliance and California’s Low Income Oversight Board. He also serves on the advisory board of USC’s Center for Sustainable Cities, the strategy committee for the Edison Foundation’s Institute for Energy Efficiency and the steering committee for the Alliance to Save Energy’s Global Action Network for Energy Efficiency Education. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency presented Gene with its 2012 Climate Leadership Award for individuals.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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The Darkest Days of the Year

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By Amy Miller

Hello, darkness my old friend.

There seems to be something sinister about loving the darkness. I know I am not alone, that there are others in New England who look forward to winter, with its chilling climate and afternoon blacks. But it’s hard to admit a passion for a season dreaded by so many. It even feels unhealthy to crave weather that sends people shivering into their homes.

Sure, I rise to the occasion when summer comes: I dine outside, garden with gusto and dare to dunk in Maine’s coastal waters. But it is December that I love. With the 15 hours of dark we are given, there are so many lights to warm our hearts. Every drive brings a new display of holiday lights. Inside, we light up our own Christmas tree and then for eight nights watch the Hanukkah candles glow.

Next Friday, Dec. 21 marks the pinnacle – the shortest day of the year. In New England that means anywhere from about 8 hours and 45 minutes of light (Maine) to 9 hours and 5 minutes of light (Connecticut). This is when the sun is tilted 23.5 degrees to the south (Tropic of Capricorn), leaving northern areas with their smallest daily dose of sunlight. Down in New Zealand at that time of year, residents will be seeing the sun for about 15.5 hours each day, but those in Fairbanks, Alaska, are getting fewer than four hours of light. And the polar circles are getting either all day or all night right now.

More than 200 years ago, New Englanders experienced unexpected darkness. “New England’s Dark Day,” as it came to be called, was May 19, 1780. It was so dark at noon people thought the world might be ending, the sun might never shine again or judgment day had come. Scientists determined 200 years later that forest fires in Ontario, Canada had brought the soot and smoke that blocked our skies.

As I drive each evening past the yellowing lights of houses coming alive, I am delighted to head home to nest by a flaming woodstove, cook a meal and share an evening of homework, movies or reading. And in these days of dark, my family can gaze at the stars long before bedtime. Or enjoy a hot tub under the full moon without staying up to await the darkness.

About the author: Amy Miller is a writer who works in the public affairs office of EPA New England in Boston. She lives in Maine with her husband, two children, seven chickens, two parakeets, dog and a great community.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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