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Daylight Saving Time Explained

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Every year some countries move their clocks forward in the spring only to move them back in the autumn. But the vast majority of the world who doesn’t participate in this odd clock fiddling seems a baffling thing to do. So what’s the reason behind it?

The original idea, proposed by George Hudson, was to give people more sunlight in the summer. Of course, it’s important to know that changing the clock doesn’t actually make more sunlight – that’s not how physics works. But, by moving the clocks forward an hour, compared to all other human activities, the sun will seem to both rise and set later. The time when the clocks are moved forward is called Daylight Saving Time and the rest of the year is called Standard Time.

This switch effectively gives people more time to enjoy the sunshine and nice summer weather after work.Hudson, in particular, wanted more sunlight so he could spend more sunlight adding to his insect collection.

When winter is coming clocks move back, presumably because people don’t want to go outside anymore. But winter doesn’t have this effect on everyone. If you live in a tropical place likeHawaii, you really don’t have to worry about seasons because they pretty much don’t happen. Every day, all year is sunny and beautiful so Christmas is just as good of a day to hit the beach as any other.

And so,Hawaiiis one of the two states in theUnionthat ignore Daylight Saving Time. But, the further you travel from the Equator in either direction, the more the seasons assert themselves and you get colder and darker winters, making summer time much more valuable to the locals. So, it’s no surprise that the further a country is from the equator, the more likely it uses Daylight Saving Time.

Hudsonproposed his idea inWellingtonin 1895 – but it wasn’t well received and it took until 1916 forGermanyto be the first country to put it into practice. Though, the uber-industrious Germans were less concerned with catching butterflies on a fine summer evening than they were with saving coal to feed the war machine.

The Germans thought that Daylight Saving time would conserve energy. The reasoning goes that it encourages people to stay out later in the summer and thus use less artificial lighting. This sounds logical and it may have worked back in the more regimented society of a hundred years ago, but does it still work in the modern world? That turns out to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. For example, take mankind’s greatest invention: Air conditioning – The magic box of cool that makes otherwise uninhabitable sections of the world quite tolerable to live. But, pumping heat out of your house isn’t cheap and turning on one air conditioning is the same as running dozens of tungsten light bulbs. If people get more sunshine, but don’t use it to go outside, the Daylight Saving Time might actually cost electricity, not save it. This is particularly true in a place likePhoenix, where the average summer high is 107 degrees and the record is 122. If you suggest to an Arizonian to change their clocks in the summer to get more sunshine, they laugh in your face. More sun and higher electricity bills is not what they want, which is whyArizonais the second state that never changes their clocks.

Another problem with trying to study Daylight saving time is rapid changes in technology and electrical use. As technology gets better and better and better more electricity is dedicated to things that aren’t light bulbs. And the lure of a hot, sweaty mosquito-filled day outside is less appealing than technological entertainment and climate-controlled comfort inside.

Also, the horrifically energy inefficient tungsten light bulbs that have remained unchanged for a century are giving way to CFLs and LEDs – greatly reducing the amount of energy required to light a room.

So, even assuming that Daylight Saving Time is effective, it’s probably less effective with every passing year. The bottom line is while some studies say Daylight Saving time costs more electricity and others say it saves electricity, the one thing they agree on is the effect size: not 20% or 10% but 1% or less, which, in the United States, works out to be about 4$ per household. 4 dollars saved or spent on electricity over an entire year is not really a huge deal either way.

So the hassle no becomes is the hassle of switching clocks twice a year worth it? The most obvious trouble comes from sleep depravation – an already to common affection in the western world that Daylight Saving Time makes measurably worse. With time-tracking software we can actually see that people are less productive the week after the clock changes. This comes with huge associated costs.

To make things worse, most countries take away that hour of sleep on a Monday morning. Sleep depravation can lead to heart attacks and suicides and the daylight saving time Monday has a higher than normal spike in both.

Other troubles come from scheduling meetings across time zones. Let’s say you plan a three-way conference between New York, London and Sydney – not an easy thing to do under the best of circumstances, but made extra difficult when they don’t agree on when Daylight Saving Time should start and end. In the spring,Sydneyis 11 hours ahead ofLondonandNew Yorkis five hours behind. But thenNew Yorkis the first to enter Daylight Saving Time and moves its clock forward an hour. Two weeks laterLondondoes the same. In one more week,Sydney, being on the opposite side of the world, leaves daylight saving time and moves its clock back an hour. So in the space of three weeks is five hours behind London, then four hours, then five again, and Sydney is either 11, 10, or 9 hours from London and 16, 15, or 14 hours from New York. And this whole crazy thing happens again in reverse six months later.

Back in the dark ages, this might have not mattered so much, but in the modern, interconnected world, planning international meetings happens thousands, and thousands, and thousands of times daily.

Shifting and inconsistent time zones isn’t doing citizens any favor. And countries aren’t even consistent about Daylight Saving Time within their own borders.Brazilhas Daylight Saving Time, but only if you live in the south.Canadahas it too, but notSaskatchewan. Most of OZ (AUS) does Daylight Saving Time, but notWestern Australia, theNorthern TerritoryorQueensland. And, of course, theUnitedStatedoes have Daylight Saving Time, unless you live in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands,American Samoa, Guam, theNorthernMarianaIslandor, as mentioned before,HawaiiandArizona.

ButArizonaisn’t even consistent within itself. WhileArizonaignores Daylight Saving Time, the Navaho Nation inside ofArizonafollows it. Inside the Navajo Nation is the Hopi Reservation which, likeArizona, ignores Daylight Saving Time. Going deeper, inside of the Hopi Reservation, is another part of the Navajo Nation, which does follow Daylight Saving Time. And finally, there is also a part of the Hopi Reservation elsewhere in the Navajo Nation which doesn’t. So, driving across this hundred-mile stretch would technically necessitate seven clock changes, which is insane.

While this is an unusual local oddity, here’s a map showing the different Daylight Saving and time zone rules in al their complicated glory. It’s a huge mess and constantly needs updating, as countries change their laws. Which is why it shouldn’t be surprising that even our digital gadgets can’t keep the time straight occasionally.

So to review: daylight saving time gives more sunlight in the summer after work, which, depending on where you live, might be an advantage – or not. And it may (or may not) save electricity. But one thing is sure: it’s guaranteed to make something that should be simple keeping the track of time, quite complicated. Which is why when it comes time to change clocks, there is always debate about whether or not we should.


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