Point of View: Understanding Daylight Saving Time in Alaska

Daylight Saving Time (DST) was proposed and implemented to shift the hours of daylight so that the sun rises later and sets later (according to the clock). This means that during periods of DST instead of the sun appearing at its highest point in the sky at noon it will reach its highest point at roughly 1 p.m. In the springtime on the day before implementing DST if the sun rises at 7:30 a.m. then on the day of beginning DST the sun will rise at 8:30 a.m.

This means that after waiting all winter to drive to work in the daylight you have to wait about two more weeks to regain the hour of morning sunlight. You have to get up an hour earlier on the day of beginning DST and solar noon will occur at roughly 1 p.m. instead of 12 noon.

This practice was supposed to save fuel and give people an extra hour of daylight for evening activities in the summer. It has been widely studied and concluded that there is no economic benefit to DST, and in fact there is an increased cost to the economy for a variety of reasons. The artificial change in clock time has also been shown to be detrimental to health. And we must ask do Alaskans really need an extra hour of evening daylight? So that in June the sun sets around 11:30 p.m. instead of 10:30 p.m.? And it never really gets dark anyway.

In 1983 the state of Alaska decided to stay on DST in the fall and in the spring of 1984 move clocks ahead another hour again, implementing what is in effect “double daylight saving time.” This change was prompted by politicians and business people so that “Alaska” time would be closer to “Seattle” time. Never mind that in Anchorage in the summer, quoting from a Wikipedia page, “visitors from more southerly latitudes are often surprised to see the sun set at 11:41 p.m. on the summer solstice, but the actual ‘solar time’ is 9:41 p.m. This is because at 150° W, Anchorage is a full solar hour behind the legal time zone and observes daylight saving time as well. Some local residents refer to this phenomenon as ‘double daylight time.’ In Fairbanks, the same circumstances cause sunset to occur at 12:47 a.m. the next calendar day and the solar sunset is at 11:01 p.m.”

Summing up a little, Alaska is huge and should really comprise about four time zones, but for business and political reasons it is divided into two. This is not too bad for people living in Anchorage and Juneau, but the farther west in Alaska you go the difference between clock time and solar time becomes more and more bizarre.

For better or worse we have evolved to need and enjoy sunlight. Our bodies are finely tuned to the rising and setting of the sun and a wide variety of physical and hormonal fluctuations are dependent on predictable periods of light and dark. Note the uncomfortable and unhealthy aspects of “jet-lag” when quickly crossing multiple time zones.

Ideally, we should have about the same amount of morning light as afternoon light, even taking into account that both periods increase and decrease depending upon the seasons. It is most comfortable for us to wake up with the sun, experience midday with the sun at its highest point and go to bed as it gets darker. DST shifts our sunlight away from a biologically sensible schedule. “Double DST” as we now experience in Alaska shifts it even further away.

The root of the sun-sync problem was a successful lobbying job by the Alaska delegation to Congress in 1983. That’s the year when three of Alaska’s four time zones — Yukon, Alaska and Bering — were combined into one.

There has been a recent proposal, passed in the U.S. senate, to “do away with DST.” This vague statement is pretty much widely supported by most people in Alaska as most people don’t like the disruption in their clock and biological schedules.

What is not made clear in the news media is that what the lawmakers mean by “doing away with DST” is not simply doing away with the time change in the fall and spring. The bipartisan bill, named the Sunshine Protection Act, would ensure Americans would no longer have to change their clocks twice a year. But the move would essentially eliminate standard time, which is what many states switch to during winter months. Alaska would remain on permanent double daylight saving time all year long.

If your life revolves around Washington politics, and Seattle business interests, Double Daylight Saving Time may appeal to you as Alaska Time is shifted to closer to time zones east of Alaska. To the rest of us it is disruptive and unhealthy. Who really wants to get up in the dark an hour earlier in the winter and who needs an extra hour of daylight at 11:30 p.m. in the summer? It would be healthiest if Alaska adjusted our clocks back two hours this fall, significantly delaying the winter darkness, and just left things that way with no further adjustments. Then our clock time and our solar day would be pretty much in synch.

Most senators had no idea what they were voting for when this bill was recently hastily introduced and passed in the Senate. Just a heads up fellow Alaskans: Make sure you understand exactly what is meant when someone asks if you want to “Do away with Daylight Saving Time”. Alaska does have the means to adjust its own time zones but we should do it wisely and only with full understanding of what we are really doing.

Michael Schallock is a longtime Homer resident who studied pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin, joined the United States Public Health Service in the early 1970s, and received a doctorate in clinical pharmacy from the University of Minnesota in 1979 where he specialized in pediatric nutrition and computer modeling of drug dosing for infectious diseases. He served as the first Chief Information Officer for the Alaska Native Medical Center.