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The Bi-Annual Time Warp

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

The idea behind the clock shift, often incorrectly called daylight savings time, is to maximize sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere, but people have long argued over the benefits of the time shift. Some point to studies showing that it can harm your health, while others argue that the extra hours of daylight allow people to get outdoors in the evening during the summer

Seasonal shifts in the length of a day come from Earth's off-kilter rotation. Our planet turns on its axis at a relatively constant 23.4-degree angle relative to its path around the sun. This means that while the Equator usually enjoys roughly 12 hours of both day and night year round, the same is not true the further north or south you go.

Summertime marks the Northern Hemisphere's time to shine. It leans toward the sun, causing longer and warmer days. Meanwhile, the Southern Hemisphere is plunged into the short days of winter as it tilts away from the sun. Six months later, the situation reverses, and winter grips the North while light bathes the South.

When coal powered lights, daylight saving time was implemented as a way to add an hour of sunlight to the end of the workday by springing forward and falling back, adding or removing an hour to align with daylight. Because of this, a given region's participation depended, in part, on how far the location was from the Equator. Countries that are farther away have a more pronounced difference in day length between summer and winter and are more likely to participate in the time shift.

Many credit Benjamin Franklin for daylight saving time thanks to a possibly satirical letter he penned for the Journal de Paris in 1784. In the letter, he expressed astonishment to see the sun rise at the early hour of six in the morning, long before most Parisians ever saw the light of day. If they were to rise with the sun, Franklin wrote, the city could save an "immense sum" from the candles burned in the dark evening hours. He never suggested a shift in clocks, however, instead offering other amusing solutions to the problem that included cannons firing in the street to rouse people from sleep, taxes for shuttered windows, and candle sales restrictions.

Others credit the idea to George Hudson, an entomologist from New Zealand, who in 1895 suggested a two-hour shift to allow for more post-work bug hunting. Soon after, a British activist named William Willett proposed a similar idea to prevent wasting daylight, bringing the concept to England's Parliament in the early 1900s.

It was not until resources became scarce during World War I that Germany decided to go ahead with just such a plan, implementing the first daylight saving time in 1916 to maximize resource use during sunlit hours. The United States soon followed suit, with the country's first seasonal time shift taking place in 1918.

However, not everyone got in on the clock-changing frenzy. In the United States, there is a growing push to do away with this particular rite of spring. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the U.S. Congress has once again introduced a bill to make daylight saving time permanent. Known as the Sunshine Protection Act, the bill shocked the country when it passed in the Senate in 2022. Though it eventually died a slow death in the House of Representatives, the bill will now wend its way through the legislative process yet again.

Nineteen states have already passed legislation or resolutions to adopt permanent daylight saving time, but these laws would only go into effect if the U.S. Congress passes its Sunshine Protection Act.

Meanwhile, a handful of states and territories already opt out of daylight saving time entirely: Hawaii, most of Arizona (excluding the Navajo Nation), and the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In Hawaii, daylight saving time indifference causes the state to brush off the time change entirely. Arizona, where scorching temperatures often make night the only bearable time to be outside, also said no to moving its clocks around, because its residents preferred to savor the cool nighttime hours. However, the daylight saving situation within Arizona is even more confusing. While most of the state ignores daylight saving time, the Navajo Nation, which covers part of northeastern Arizona, observes it. Meanwhile, the Hopi Reservation, which is surrounded entirely by the Navajo Nation, does not. And within the Hopi Reservation sits a small slice of the Navajo Nation that, does observe daylight saving time. So, if you find yourself through northeastern Arizona, you might want to ask for the time instead of relying on your own watch.

Globally, the popularity of changing clocks varies as well. Most of North America, Europe, New Zealand, and a few regions of the Middle East are in on the annual shift, though each have different start and stop dates. But the majority of Africa and Asia do not change their clocks. South America and Australia are split on the matter.

Europe's participation, however, soon may change. In 2019, the European Union voted to end the mandatory time shift, which previously spanned March and October. But that plan seems to be on hold for now. Negotiations stalled as the bloc deals with fallout from both Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many, the change seems meddlesome, resulting in missed meetings and sleepy citizens. There may be even more severe effects. Some studies identified an increase in heart attacks that coincides with springing forward and a slight decrease when falling back. Other studies suggest the time change could be linked to an increase of fatal car accidents, though the effect is small relative to the total number of crashes each year. Still other concerns include impacts to the immune system due to the inevitable sleep loss.

What's more, many studies have questioned whether there have ever been energy savings at all. A 2008 study from the U.S. Department of Energy suggested that in the United States, an extra four weeks of daylight saving time saved about 0.5 percent in total electricity a day. But others conclude the situation is largely a wash. The later sunlight hours do often reduce electricity use during this time, but they also spur more intense use of air conditioning in the evening or greater energy demands to light up the dark mornings.

These days, arguments in favor of daylight saving time generally center on the boost the time shift gives to evening activities. People tend to go outside when it's light after work rather than sitting on the couch. Many outdoor industries, including golf and barbecue, have even promoted daylight saving time, which they say boosts profits. The petroleum industry is also a fan, as people drive more if it is still light after work or school.

So, regardless of whether you want the practice to stay or go, the chances of the bi-annual time warp ending anytime soon are looking grim.


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