The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Don’t forget to ‘fall back’ this weekend; standard time begins Sunday

Change any of those clocks that don’t change themselves!

Early sunsets can be beautiful. November 2014. (Richard Barnhill via Flickr)

Sometimes it seems like time is standing still. And once a year, time even goes backward. That time comes this Sunday at 2 a.m., when we “fall back” and set our watches an hour earlier to 1 a.m. The occasion marks the annual transition from daylight saving time to standard time.

Although the time change means an extra hour of sleep for those of us fortunate enough to take advantage of such a thing, it comes with a price, and that price is earlier sunsets.

Saturday night, the sun dips below the horizon at 6:05 p.m. in Washington. Fast forward to Sunday, and the light disappears at 5:04 p.m. Farther north, up in Boston, sunset is even earlier -- just after 4:30 p.m. following the switch, while twilight will fall on Philly at 4:54 p.m. Sunday.

Where’s that chunk of daytime going? You’ll notice it when the sun rises an hour earlier in the morning.

The amount of daylight we see naturally shrinks every autumn. This is thanks to the earth’s 23.5-degree tilt on its axis. During the summer, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere lean toward the sun and remain bathed in sunlight longer. In winter, that slant works against us. Daylight wanes, darkness creeps closer, and the days shorten until the winter solstice. On that day, regions north of the Arctic Circle never witness a sunrise.

Over the next month, D.C. will lose another 50 minutes of daylight. At peak darkness for the year, the sun will shine only for a mere 9 hours and 26 minutes -- rising at 7:23 a.m. and plunging below the horizon at 4:49 p.m. For comparison, Washington remains sunlit for a whopping 14 hours and 53 minutes on the summer solstice in June!

Closer to the equator, that summer to winter change in sunlight isn’t quite as dramatic. Take Miami, for example. Sunset there shifts up to 5:30 p.m. in December, but doesn’t get past 8:16 p.m. in July. The farther poleward one goes, the greater the range in annual daylight between seasons, but regions nearer the equator boast a greater annual average of daylight.

This whole clock shift partly stems from a time when we had a much more agricultural-based populace in the United States. Many believed that an hour of daylight in the morning was more valuable to farming and industry than one tacked on to the end of the workday. In the summertime, that hour isn’t overly important. During the darker months as winter approaches, sunlight is in short supply, and that hour is in high demand.

In some fashion, it also dates back to a thought experiment by famed inventor and founding father Benjamin Franklin. He calculated that the city of Paris could save 64 million pounds of candle wax in six month if residents worked with the sun instead of sleeping late into the day after a night of recreation. Franklin is known for his iconic adage “early to bed, early to rise / makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Port Arthur, Ontario, became the first city in the world to ratify daylight saving time back on July 1, 1908.

The idea quickly caught on across Europe and was adopted by the United States on March 19, 1918. But it didn’t stick around long here. Congress abolished it after World War I and overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. DST remained on the bike rack until Feb. 9, 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted “War Time.” Some communities latched on to the idea, and others didn’t. Finally, on April 13, 1966, Congress sought to eliminate inconsistencies and passed the Uniform Time Act. Daylight saving time has been with us ever since.

Time shifting is still mired in some controversy. Many would prefer a brighter evening than morning. There is even some literature to suggest that year-round daylight time (what we have in the summer) would combat the incidence of seasonal affective disorder, a darkness-driven melancholy whose depressive onset often follows the time change.

Years of deeply rooted tradition stand in the way of any change to this practice today. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has been leading his state’s efforts to remain on daylight saving time throughout the year. The Sunshine State’s proposal appears likely to be struck down by Congress in the weeks ahead.