Home > Stargazing, Time and Date > Double Summertime and amateur astronomy

Double Summertime and amateur astronomy

The BBC news website today has a feature on Double Summertime (DST), the proposal to set all UK clocks forward by one hour throughout the year, so that we might all benefit from longer evenings. The argument is that this will boost tourism, reduce road traffic accidents, and give us more time to enjoy outdoor activities in the evening.

UK amateur astronomers would lose 25% of their dark evening observing hours under Double Summertime

The main argument normally put up against Double Summertime is that there will be an increase in road traffic accidents due to darker mornings. This is technically true, although it is more than offset by the reduction in RTAs as a result of the brighter evenings, and therefore overall it’s safer, saving an estimated 80-100 lives per year. (See section 4.6, pp. 49-50 in the report Road Safety Beyond 2010 for the estimates in detail).

The extra hour of daylight each evening could be worth £3.5 billion through increased tourism, as well as creating around 8000 new jobs.

And finally, the reduced use of lights at night might save an estimated 2% of our daily electricity use, or 1.2 million tonnes of carbon.

So what’s not to like?

Well, not everyone would welcome brighter evenings. It is definitely a minority interest when set against the pro-safety, pro-business, pro-environment arguments above, but the UK amateur astronomy community would be more than a little put out by the change, losing an hour of stargazing each night. Of course, that hour won’t be lost, they’ll simply have to stay up later to observe, but the fact is many won’t. Staying up until midnight on a weeknight when you have got work the next day is very different from staying up till 1am. In addition public star parties will have to start later, therefore attracting fewer people throughout the year. Small concerns maybe, but it’s worth recognising that not everyone in the country would welcome brighter evenings.

City Annual # of hours of darkness*
before midnight under present system
Annual # of hours of darkness*
before midnight under DST
% decrease
Glasgow 977 731 25%
London 1110 830 25%

* darkness = after the end of astronomical twilight

As you can see from the table above, amateur astronomers around the country would lose 25% of their dark evening observing hours throughout the year. Of course these “missing” hours could be made up by staying up an hour later, but that’s not always practical.

Just at the point where astronomy is starting to dramatically increase in popularity, with a surge in telescope sales due to projects like the International Year of Astronomy 2009 and BBC Stargazing Live, a switch to DST would put a serious dent in that enthusiasm. The table below is similar to the one above except that it shows the number of hours of darkness before 10pm, the time that an enthusiastic newcomer might stay up doing simple observing, or the latest that a public star party might run. As you can see the % decrease is even more dramatic here, with reductions of more than 1/3.

City Annual # of hours of darkness*
before 10pm under present system
Annual # of hours of darkness*
before 10pm under DST
% decrease
Glasgow 515 328 36%
London 584 379 35%

I’m not necessarily arguing against DST, given how many lives it could save, how much money it would bring in through tourism (although the change could seriously hamper an area that is developing its astronomy tourism), and how much it would benefit the environment, but it’s always good to get an alternative viewpoint.

UPDATE (28 Feb 2011): The British Astronomical Association has issued the following statement:

“The UK has a thriving amateur astronomy community who regularly observe the night sky in the evenings.

Many of these amateurs share their knowledge at organised public outreach events across the whole country every year. These evening events are attended by people of all ages and backgrounds. For many youngsters it will be their first experience of science outside the classroom and for some it will be a pleasurable and formative experience that may encourage them into a science-based education and career, something the government is keen to promote.

By delaying the time at which it becomes dark enough to observe the night sky, the proposals in the Daylight Saving Bill will have a detrimental effect on these outreach activities and reduce their benefit to society.

We encourage those deciding on the proposed Daylight Saving Bill to take this into account.”

Members may wish to write to their MP to make their own representations.

  1. Darren
    February 24, 2011 at 15:12

    If more councils turn street lights off during the early hours as many are trialling I can see a lot of amateur astronomers switching their observation times to very early mornings rather than evenings to coincide with that. so maybe it won’t be such a bad thing.

    • February 24, 2011 at 15:16

      You’re probably right, but that really only applies to the very devoted amateur. It’s actually the second table that worries me more: the opportunity to run public engagement activities in sociable hours will drop by more than 35%

      • Darren
        February 24, 2011 at 15:33

        Great point. Youngsters will suffer most. It’ll make it almost impossible for them to get into astronomy and the youngsters in northern Scotland won’t see daylight till mid morning. I can’t see it happening.

  2. February 24, 2011 at 15:49

    Steve – great stuff… an interesting and reasoned viewpoint and a very welcome change from the complete non-argument that farmers present for the status quo.

    My (admittedly harsh) view is this: let’s not pander to amateur astronomers. There are enough professionals out there who have proper kit and are already literally light years ahead of the amateurs. While I’m sure it’s a fun hobby – and I have a growing interest in astro-photography myself – I’m not sure the activity of stargazing actually contributes anything to society (unlike, for example, amateur sport which would benefit from the clocks change and which raises the overall health of the population).

    There are plenty of activities from snowboarding to landscape photography that have narrower windows of opportunity and require more dedication to participate in than amateur astronomy, yet people do in their thousands.

    If people want to squint at the stars in their back gardens then fine… but like trainspotting or S&M lets not go out of our way to encourage it.

    • February 24, 2011 at 16:06

      Lol! Very good, Grant. That’s sure to get a rise out of the astronomers who might read this! I will correct you on one point though: astronomy is one science where amateurs are doing work that professionals don’t do, and provide a wealth of data which advances astronomy as a subject, and helps develop our understanding of the cosmos. For example, amateurs are doing a lot of the groundwork in finding new supernovae, in hunting for comets and asteroids, and in variable star observing, to name but a few. All done by amateurs “squint[ing] at the stars in their back gardens”, and all would be impacted by a switch to DST.

      Crucially also the change to DST would most adversely effect young people who aren’t willing / able to stay up later, and it’s well known that one of the best ways to turn kids on to science is through astronomy, and the best way to do that is to let them see through a telescope. Such activities do contribute to society, and would be harmed by a move to DST. I agree with you that the health factor of increased evening sports is an important one, but so too is having a society engaged in science.

  3. February 28, 2011 at 20:41

    I need to go and read some of the source material for the roadsafety report. I’d like to see how they made some of their estimates. I wonder if they factored in the potentially increased alcohol consumption during lighter evenings (given the alcohol bit of the report later on) .

  4. Jim
    March 1, 2011 at 21:21

    Uk weather! During the evening I can see whether the sky is clear. I don’t fancy setting my alarm for 5am if when I am woken it’s cloudy or rainy! My sleep has been disturbed for nothing.

  5. Tony
    January 20, 2012 at 10:18

    If this is so good, why was it so unpopular when we did it? Surely we should place more faith in the results of the experiment than in untested models

    • January 20, 2012 at 10:56

      I agree that experiment is better than theory, but “unpopular” doesn’t mean “unsuccessful”. The smoking ban was unpopular in many quarters, but has been successfully cut smoking rates.

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