Springing ahead: Daylight Saving Time

SparkCBC/Flickr

SparkCBC/Flickr

Of course, we all know that spring begins on the vernal equinox, but for me, the real deal is the annual switch to Daylight Saving Time.

Turning the clock forward, as we will on Sunday, shifts the increasing daylight to the early evening hours, putting a new perspective on the day. At last, we’ll be commuting home in daylight and shortly can expect to have a usable hour or two once we arrive back at the ranch. 

It’s disorienting at first, true, and all next week I’ll be mentally calculating the “real” (Standard) time that we’ve just left behind, comparing it to the sunlit scene in front of my eyes. At 6 p.m., formerly twilight, I say to myself, “but it’s really 5.” This becomes too tedious to keep up and, by the following week, I’ll just put it out of my mind and go with the “real” (Daylight Saving) time of my newly adjusted clocks and watches.

This fiddling with the time originally was the idea of that Jack-of-all-trades, Benjamin Franklin. During his sojourn in Paris as ambassador to France, Franklin laid out his scheme in a 1784 monograph entitled “An Economical Project for Diminishing the Cost of Light.” In his day, the shift meant saving lamp oil; in ours, it means a measurable cutback in electricity usage.

More light in the evenings, when families tend to be home together, trims the number of hours when we need artificial lighting. By making sunset an hour later, the period between nightfall and bedtime is reduced. Those extra daylight hours in spring and summer also coax us up and out of the house, so we’re not there to turn on the lights, the small appliances and the electronic gizmos.

Daylight Saving Time also is credited with making it four times less likely that pedestrians will be hit by passing cars during the evening rush. That unhappy prospect now becomes more likely in the morning, at least until sunrise occurs at an earlier point, before most folks are up.

Still, no one took up the Daylight Saving cause in a serious way until 1907, when William Willet, a London builder, spent a fortune lobbying in its favor. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that Franklin’s scheme and Willet’s endorsement failed to meet with universal approval — in fact, there are still dissidents, including farmers, ultra-orthodox Sephardic Jews and residents of Indiana, Arizona and Hawaii, who do not observe Daylight Saving in the same way that we do.

Equatorial and tropical countries don’t bother with Daylight Saving time because their hours of daylight and darkness don’t vary much through the seasons — there’s just no advantage to fiddling with the clocks. Why bother?

The United States didn’t adopt Daylight Saving Time until 1918 and it proved so unpopular that the law was overturned just a year later, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. Daylight Savings returned as a war-time measure backed by President Franklin Roosevelt, but between 1945 and 1966, states could set their own whimsical/bimbsical schedule for hopping on and off the Daylight Saving bandwagon. This caused so much confusion that in 1966, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act — which still allowed states to exempt themselves from its provisions.

The tinkering with time continues, but at points in the past, the real issue wasn’t the length of daylight by the clock, but the amount of solar radiation hitting the ground. An Israeli scientist named Gerald Stanhill described the phenomenon he called “global dimming,” documenting a 10 percent drop worldwide in the intensity of sunlight between 1958 and 1992.

Scientists didn't quite understand how sunlight could be dimming while temperatures were rising in an era of global warming, but it may have to do with air pollution that made the air murkier, leaving us to see the sun through a veil darkly. Global dimming might have had serious implications for solar power generation, but after the 1990s, the trend reversed and we entered a period of “global brightening,” probably due to better air quality regulations here and abroad.

For those of us who lack the patience to get involved in scientific measurement, practical matters prevail: Get out there and enjoy the sunshine while ye may. Anyhow, if we were really “saving” daylight, shouldn’t we have banked enough by now to make global dimming moot? Couldn’t we just make a withdrawal if the light should fade again?