Robert Whitcomb: Time to go Atlantic

INGONISH, Nova Scotia  

Some of us head into seasonal affective disorder at this time of year, which the brilliant if brief foliage can’t stop.

The sharpest downer comes when Daylight Savings Time ends, this year on Sunday, Nov. 2. There is, of course, a brief benefit of the change: We can loll in bed for an extra hour. I remember as a boy looking forward to that Sunday morning for weeks.

But then, that afternoon, darkness descends all too early.

So an Oct. 5 essay in The Boston Globe by Tom Emswiler, “Why Massachusetts should defect from its time zone,” caught my eye. Mr. Emswiler recommends New England adopting Atlantic Time, which is used in eastern Canada. He writes that “it matches the time we already use in the summer, and would simply mean that in the fall, we don’t have to fall back.” We’d keep the clock an hour forward all year. No more need for those twice-yearly reminders, with smiley clock faces, in the news media.

He notes that “Boston lies so far east in the Eastern Time Zone that during standard time, our earliest nightfall of the year is a mere 27 minutes later than in Anchorage,’’ which is a lot farther north than New England. And consider Downeast Maine, where tourist agencies like to advertise the summit of Cadillac Mountain, on Mount Desert Island, as the first place in the United States where you can see the sun rise.

Two criticisms of Mr. Emshiler’s idea (variants of which others have made) are that current school-opening policies would mean that the kids would have to wait in the dark for school buses and that farmers would have to get up in even deeper dark than they already do.

On the first issue, why not open school an hour later than now? After all, studies have suggested that the sleeping cycles of young people, especially adolescents, clash with the typical 7:20-8 a.m. openings of public schools.


And, as I remember from when we lived in Paris — much farther north than New England — students can handle an 8 a.m. sunrise.

As for the farmers, the serious ones (not the affluent hobbyist farmers) already get up in the dark. And of course, the New England agricultural sector, while showing some signs of revival with the “locavore’’ and organic-food movements, is very small employment-wise.

Perhaps a bigger issue might be what to do with southwestern Connecticut, which is so tied to the New York City market. Perhaps just eastern New England would move to Atlantic Time? Some have suggested as a compromise that we’d just make a half-hour difference with Eastern Time instead of an hour. Too confusing! Most people think in hour increments. And other states have split time zones without heavy damage.

My hunch is that going on Atlantic Time would raise the spirits and mental and physical energy of more New Englanders than not, by alleviating the late-afternoon grimness of late fall, winter and early spring. (The afternoon darkness particularly puts a damper on the ambiguous charms of Thanksgiving and Christmas and adds anxiety to Sundays, on which we dread the approach of the work and school week.)

The problem is not so much the total hours of darkness — otherwise why are Canadians and Scandinavians among the world’s happiest people, according to surveys? (Their sense of community and strong social services explain much of their happiness.) Rather, I think, it’s the time of day when there’s light, for, among other things, taking a walk, shopping or otherwise enjoying the outside; a bright winter day can be exhilarating.

The change might save on heating (but not air-conditioning) and overall electricity costs for many people: More workers would arrive home when there’s still natural light and at close to the warmest time of the day. Whether this time-zone change would make commuting by car less or more dangerous is an interesting question. You could say that early-morning drivers in the dark might present more risks because many would still be groggy from sleeping. But you could also say that letting more drivers wearied by work commute home when there’s still light would be safer.

Still, would businesses complain about being on the same time zone as Halifax instead of New York and Washington? Maybe, but if proposals for a free-trade area encompassing the United States, Canada and the European Union come to fruition, which I hope they do, New England, or at least eastern New England, going on Atlantic Time might be a boon by putting us nearer to E.U. times.

In any event, it’s time to end the twice-yearly confusion.

Robert Whitcomb (, a bi-weekly contributor, is a former editor of these pages, a Providence-based editor and writer and a partner in a health-care sector consultancy.