Time zone

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A time zone is a region that has a uniform standard time for legal, commercial, and social purposes. It is convenient for areas in close commercial or other communication to keep the same time, so time zones tend to follow the boundaries of countries and their subdivisions.

Most of the time zones on land are offset from Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) by a whole number of hours (UTC−12 to UTC+14), but a few are offset by 30 or 45 minutes (for example Nepal Standard Time is UTC +05:45). Some higher latitude countries use daylight saving time for part of the year, typically by changing clocks by an hour. Many land time zones are skewed toward the west of the corresponding nautical time zones. This also creates a permanent daylight saving time effect.


Until 1972 all time zones were specified as an offset from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), which was the mean solar time at the meridian passing through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London. Since 1972 all official time services have broadcast radio time signals synchronized to UTC, a form of atomic time that includes leap seconds to keep it within 0.9 seconds of this former GMT, now called UT1. Many countries now legally define their standard time relative to UTC, although some still legally refer to GMT, including the United Kingdom itself. UTC, also called Zulu time, is used everywhere on Earth by astronomers and others who need to state the time of an event unambiguously.

Time zones are based on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the mean solar time at longitude 0° (the Prime Meridian). As the rate of rotation of the Earth is not constant, the time derived from atomic clocks is adjusted to stay within a second of UT1. In January 1972 the length of the second in both Greenwich Mean Time and atomic time was equalized. The readings of atomic clocks are averaged to give a uniform time scale.

Because the length of the average day is currently 0.002 second more than 24 hours, leap seconds are periodically inserted into Greenwich Mean Time to make it approximate to UT1. This new time system is also called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Leap seconds are inserted to keep UTC within 0.9 seconds of UT1. Because the Earth's rotation is gradually slowing, leap seconds will need to be added more frequently in the future. However, from one year to the next the rotation rate is slightly irregular, so leap seconds are not added unless observations of Earth's rotation show that one is needed. In this way, local times will continue to stay close to mean solar time and the effects of variations in Earth's rotation rate will be confined to simple step changes relative to the uniform time scale (International Atomic Time or TAI). All local times differ from TAI by an integral number of seconds. With the implementation of UTC, nations began to use it in the definition of their time zones. As of 2005, most nations had altered the definition of local time in this way.

In the United Kingdom, this involved redefining Greenwich Mean Time to make it the same as UTC.[1] British Summer Time (BST) is still one hour in advance of Greenwich Mean Time and is therefore also one hour in advance of Coordinated Universal Time. Thus Greenwich Mean Time is the local time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich between 01:00 GMT on the last Sunday in October and 01:00 GMT on the last Sunday in March. Similar circumstances apply in many other places.

Leap seconds are considered by many to be a nuisance [who?], and ways to abolish them are being considered. This means letting the time difference accumulate. One suggestion is to insert a "leap-hour" in about 5,000 years. For more on this discussion read Proposal to abolish leap seconds.


If the time is in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), add a "Z" directly after the time without a space. "Z" is the zone designator for the zero UTC offset. "09:30 UTC" is therefore represented as "09:30Z" or "0930Z". "14:45:15 UTC" would be "14:45:15Z" or "144515Z".

UTC time is also known as "Zulu" time, since "Zulu" is the ICAO spelling alphabet code word for "Z".

Offsets from UTC

Offsets from UTC are written in the format ±[hh]:[mm], ±[hh][mm], or ±[hh]. So if the time being described is one hour ahead of UTC (such as the time in Berlin during the winter), the zone designator would be "+01:00", "+0100", or simply "+01". This is appended to the time in the same way that 'Z' was above. The offset from UTC changes with daylight saving time, e.g. a time offset in Chicago, which is in the North American Central Time Zone, would be "−06:00" for the winter (Central Standard Time) and "−05:00" for the summer.

Nautical time zones

Since the 1920s a nautical standard time system has been in operation for ships on the high seas. Nautical time zones are an ideal form of the terrestrial time zone system. Under the system, a time change of one hour is required for each change of longitude by 15°. The 15° gore that is offset from GMT or UT1 (not UTC) by twelve hours is bisected by the nautical date line into two 7.5° gores that differ from GMT by ±12 hours. A nautical date line is implied but not explicitly drawn on time zone maps. It follows the 180th meridian except where it is interrupted by territorial waters adjacent to land, forming gaps: it is a pole-to-pole dashed line.[2][3][4]

A ship within the territorial waters of any nation would use that nation's standard time, but would revert to nautical standard time upon leaving its territorial waters. The captain is permitted to change the ship's clocks at a time of the captain’s choice following the ship's entry into another time zone. The captain often chooses midnight. Ships going in shuttle traffic over a time zone border often keep the same time zone all the time, to avoid confusion about work, meal and shop opening hours. Still the time table for port calls must follow the land time zone.

Daylight saving time

Many countries, and sometimes just certain regions of countries, adopt daylight saving time (also known as "Summer Time") during part of the year. This typically involves advancing clocks by an hour near the start of spring and adjusting back in autumn ("spring" forward, "fall" back). Modern DST was first proposed in 1907 and was in widespread use in 1916 as a wartime measure aimed at conserving coal. Despite controversy, many countries have used it off and on since then; details vary by location and change occasionally. Most countries around the equator do not observe daylight saving time, since the seasonal difference in sunlight is minimal.

External links


  1. The Astronomical Almanac 1983, US Government Printing Office (Washington) and Her Majesty's Stationery Office (London), page B4.
  2. Bowditch, Nathaniel. American Practical Navigator. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1925, 1939, 1975.
  3. Hill, John C., Thomas F. Utegaard, Gerard Riordan. Dutton's Navigation and Piloting. Annapolis: United States Naval Institute, 1958.
  4. Howse, Derek. Greenwich Time and the Discovery of the Longitude. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-19-215948-8.