Daylight Savings Time is a big cheat

I’ve written about Daylight Savings Time before. Mainly, I think it consumes too much of a year already. And now I find that the U.S. Senate without debate unanimously passed a bill to make Daylight Savings Time (DST) year round.

Why is it that something with such major implications somehow doesn’t even get a filibuster challenge? It’s unclear if the House will vote on a similar bill, but year round Daylight Savings Time may be becoming a thing.

The U.S. Senate wants to save us from the chore of resetting our clocks twice a year. This is a lot less of a chore than it used to be because many of us have smart clocks, phones and computers that update automatically. Still, it’s not much of a bother. It takes me about two minutes twice a year.

Unfortunately my senator, Ed Markey, is a big proponent of this change. Who doesn’t like more light in the evening? I’ll tell you who shouldn’t: students, that’s who. Because we tried this before during the Arab Oil Embargo in the 1970s. I was a junior in high school at the time in Daytona Beach, Florida. The effect was for us to start classes in the dark.

The sun there rose a bit after 8 AM around the winter solstice. Our bus picked us up in the dark. Our classes started at 7:30 AM, which is unusual, but wasn’t unusual in Florida then. Lots of people were moving to Florida and not all were retirees. The schools couldn’t be made big enough fast enough (and Florida taxpayers are notorious skinflints), so Juniors and Seniors attended in the morning, and Sophomores in the afternoon. I was one of the few students in my early classes actually awake because I was generally asleep by 11 PM. Most of the students slept at their desks.

Unless school starting times are delayed to accommodate the late sunrises, this will happen again. But that largely won’t happen. School starting times depend mostly on when the bus drivers are available, so we can anticipate students will be sleeping at their desks again if this bill becomes law, if they aren’t already. Teenagers tend to need ten or more hours of sleep, and they don’t like going to bed at a reasonable hour. So yearlong DST is likely to just accelerate our national brain drain as students opt to sleep in early classes rather than learn.

In the early 1970s, the purpose of yearlong DST was to help weather the energy crisis. But it wasn’t just students that hated it. Americans in general hated it. In 1974 the law was repealed. This is likely to happen again.

The Washington Post did a study on the effects of this change. It will disproportionately affect those on the western edges of their time zones. It will be especially brutal in Indiana and Michigan when sunrises will happen between 9 and 9:30 AM around Christmas. All this to enjoy maybe a little bit of dusk around 6 PM.

DST actually makes things worse for your circadian rhythm. According to another Washington Post article, it’s like suffering from continuous jet lag.

This makes sense if you think about it. Ideally, at noon the sun would be equidistant between the eastern and the western horizons. That way the clock would align with your body’s natural circadian rhythm. You can get a sense of what this time is in your area by looking at a table of sunrises and sunsets. When I live, the sun rose today at 6:57 AM and will set at 7:02 PM. That means the sun is at its highest about 1 PM.

If we were on standard time, that would work out pretty well because the sun would be where it should be at 12 PM. But DST unnaturally pushed the clocks forward last weekend. Basically, standard time is natural at my longitude, so if I were on standard time all year round my biological clock should be happiest. But politicians won’t let me do this except for four months a year.

It’s understandable that some will be excited by longer evenings during the summer. There’s a solution to that: move north. Assuming you are on standard time, the further north, the better. Of course there’s the downside that in the winter the days will be a lot shorter. But there’s a solution to that too: move toward the equator. Live in Ecuador, say. Days are almost always about twelve hours long, so no long nights, but no long days either.

It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that the planet will keep spinning at a 23.5 degrees tilt toward the sun regardless, so you’ll never always get lots of long days. DST is essentially a cheat and an illusion.

But whether we are aware of it or not, its effects on your body are quite real. It’s probably why you drink many cups of coffee every morning. If you read the article in my last link, you’ll see that DST is associated not only with more accidents during the time change, but with adverse health effects like obesity.

Year round standard time is not a perfect solution either. Where I live, this would mean sunrises around 4:30 AM in June. We might be rising naturally around 5 AM. But if you were truly following your circadian rhythm, you probably wouldn’t be staying up late watching Stephen Colbert either. You would be retiring between 9 and 10 PM every night. And of course your evenings would be darker than you might like in the summer. Around here, it would be dark around 8 PM.

DST is a ruse to make you think you can change time, but you can’t. Instead, it stresses out your body, whether you are aware of it or not. Those into a healthy lifestyle should support yearlong standard time and wouldn’t freak out if they awake naturally around 5 AM in June. Your body will be following the sun, which is how nature intends it. You might just rid yourself of a host of maladies in doing so too.

Searching for daylight

Moving to a new state brings a lot of changes. When you do it for pleasure like we did they should be mostly good. In April we moved from Northern Virginia to Western Massachusetts. Life is definitely slower here, but what’s not slower is the traffic. It generally moves. There are a few predictable choke points. It’s mildly annoying when it happens, but is not one hundredth as annoying as traffic in and around Washington D.C. The good: we now live in a city with a small town feel but with a vibrant downtown and liberal values. Republicans don’t generally even try to run for office around here. Bernie Sanders posters are everywhere.

But invariably there are certain things you miss, some that you did not quite expect. I thought I would miss the ethnic diversity of the Washington area but it’s quite diverse around here too. D.C. is very much a happening sort of city (as evidenced by its traffic) with a general level of affluence not seen around here. Unquestionably D.C. has a much better arts scene, although there is a surprising amount in this area.

One I did not expect to miss was daylight. Moving to Massachusetts meant moving 3.5 degrees north in latitude and 4.7 degrees east in longitude. You wouldn’t think it would make that much a difference in the amount of daylight, but it does. It’s not even Thanksgiving but by 5 p.m. it is already pitch dark here. In fact, the sun is already close to the horizon around 3 p.m. Sunset is this afternoon at 4:24 p.m. The sun rose here at 6:49 a.m. Our earliest sunset starts December 7 at 4:18 p.m. with our latest sunrise arriving December 31 at 7:19 a.m. As you might expect the shortest day is at the start of winter, when we get 9:06 of daylight.

These sorts of short days were not unknown to me. For the first fifteen years of my life I lived in upstate New York at about the same latitude. So I knew what I was getting into by moving north again. After 37 years of living in the mid Atlantic I was used to going home from work when there was still daylight out. The sun may have been setting, but you could still see. For comparison the sun sets in Washington D.C. today at 4:50 p.m. and rose at 6:58 a.m. So it has 9:51 of daylight, whereas we have 9:35.

Strangely enough, it makes quite a difference. The shortest day in Washington D.C is 9:26. (If these sorts of statistics interest you, you might like this site.) In short, in moving I lost twenty minutes of daylight in the winter and because we are further east the sun sets sooner. As a result I am starting to think of daylight as a precious commodity.

The good part is that since we are retired it doesn’t matter as much. If I were still working and living here I’d likely be driving to work in the dark and returning in the dark as well too. I now rise between 7:30 and 8 AM when daylight is just establishing itself. A typical day as a retiree involves a little work, a few chores and daily exercise. Exercise consumes at least an hour and I prefer to do it outside while it is still daylight. As a practical matter this means I have to start exercise no later than 2 p.m. because by 3:30 p.m. it’s already getting dark, with the sun hanging low in the sky. On overcast days like today the streetlights are on around 4 p.m. as clouds drain what little daylight there is. It also means that daylight is slow to emerge. This effectively shortens my period for enjoying the outdoors to about six hours a day.

Part of this problem is manmade. We arbitrarily divide the world into time zones, generally each an hour apart. Washington D.C. is toward the middle of the Eastern Time Zone, so the time of day feels natural year round. Here, an our or so west of Boston, we are not too far from the eastern edge of the time zone boundary. Effectively, I could enjoy more daylight if I would get up sooner.

Oddly enough, I am feeling this pull. I’ve never been a naturally early riser but now I am thinking I should get up around 7 a.m. so I can enjoy the daylight while it lasts. Sunny days are nice but they feel rushed through. With the sun not too far from the horizon all day the sun tends to stream in through the southern windows, making rooms blinding at times. My office faces south. On sunny days late in the year it is too much. I draw my translucent blinds, allowing light in but keeping the sun from shining directly in my face.

Without the bright city lights we were used too, night here feels deeper, darker and a bit foreboding. Streetlights are few. We live in a community where there is usually one bear sighting a year here, generally at the top of our hill. We were the lucky recipients this year when two teenage bears looking several hundred pounds each ambled through our tiny backyard, then across the street right in front of some men running construction equipment. Bears in the light can also be around in the dark of course. These bears are pretty massive. I’m quite sure a sufficiently motivated bear could break into our house through a window. The plentiful darkness raises these fears in my mind.

I don’t feel like I have a case of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I don’t feel depressed by the longer nights. In a way these shorter days and longer and darker nights are neat. When the skies are clear the skies are amazing! We are fortunate to be away from the city enough to appreciate real dark. No wonder solstice was such a big deal to our ancestors. It’s this that probably makes the daylight feel more precious to me, and which makes me want to get up with the sun and busily engage the world while I can.