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Time Zones: They’re Not What You Think They Are

Time zones; they sound super simple and super boring. Twenty four different time zones comprising of fifteen degrees longitude based off the time in Greenwich, England. Sounds pretty boring, until you realize that that is not the way it works in actuality. Let us start when time zones were a brand new concept…

Back in the day, there were no standardized time zones. Clocks were simply set to local time, with twelve-noon being the instant when the sun was highest in the sky. When trains were first engineered and used to transport goods and people across the country, an extremely complex and confusing problem arose. It was basically impossible to keep track of which times which trains came and went. If only time was standardized so that everyone knew what time to be at the station! The United Kingdom was the first to figure out this predicament by standardizing all clocks according to the Royal Observatory of Greenwich, England. The United States was second to follow, its time zones also standardized to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) by subtracting the appropriate number of hours necessary to ensure twelve-noon occurred when the sun was the highest in the sky. In 1884, the International Meridian Conference established global standard time zones based off of GMT, with each time zone fifteen degrees of longitude in width. Today, Universal Coordinated Time (UTC) is the new name for the base time used to determine all other time zones.

Here is where things get tricky: every country (in some cases provinces and/or states) dictates in which time zone they would like to be in. There are countries that stick with their geographical time zones, such as the United Kingdom and the continental United States, but there are also those countries that do not. For instance, Iceland geographically falls into the UTC-1 time zone, but observes UTC+0. France falls in the UTC+0 zone, but observes UTC+1 time zone. So even though France and the United Kingdom are in the same longitude, they have two different time zones. Things only get crazier from there.

China, which geographically spans five different zones, only uses one time zone: Beijing (UTC+8). This means that the sunrise in China’s westernmost region can occur at10:00 AM or later, resulting in misperception of the time of day for those who live there. Other countries refuse to align themselves to the nearest hour. Afghanistan, India and Iran, to name a few, align themselves to nearest half or quarter hour, as India’s time zone is UTC+5:30 and Nepal aligns to itself to UTC+5:45. Countries are also constantly changing their time zone and whether they observe Daylight Savings Time. Russia completely reset their time zones, and in 2013 Libya decided to skip out on Daylight Savings Time.

Daylight Savings Time sets an area’s time an hour ahead during spring and summer months, and was designed to increase the amount of sunlight in the summer. Most countries do not observe Daylight Savings Time, and the countries that practice it are not consistent in doing so. The United Kingdom exits Daylight Savings Time a week before most other countries do. Arizona does not follow Daylight Savings Time as it is an hour off of its northern neighbors, despite being in the same longitude. But the madness doesn’t end there. The Navajo Nation within Arizona does observe Daylight Savings Time, while the Hopi Reservation, inside of the Navajo Nation, does not.

So why bother with time zones? Why not just decide that everyone must set their clocks to UTC+0 (even though that would mean that 7:00 AM would be noontime here in Latham)? Perhaps there would be an incredible amount of “jet lag” if the whole world switched to UTC+0. Perhaps the biggest reason this has not happened, is that it would sever time from its original purpose: to keep track of where the sun was in its daily path, meaning noon should in the middle of the day. So when you at a clock, remember, time isn’t always so easy to calculate.