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7 Reasons That Time Zones Are Confusing

Posted on April 12, 2010 in Top Posts | 22 comments

The way we measure and calculate time is a wholly abstract construct that is often difficult to grasp.  And then, when we split it into zones – that are also abstract – it becomes very confusing indeed.  Here are seven reasons why.

World Time Zone Map in colour

1.  South Africa. I’m not a geographical expert, but I have rough grasp of the map of the world and how it relates to me.  I’m in England; I know that South Africa is approximately 5,500 miles away from me.  I also know that France is 21 miles away from England.  But it’s exactly the same time in France right now as it is in South Africa.  This means that when it’s lunchtime in Cape Town, it’s lunchtime in Paris, and when it’s teatime in Cape Town, it’s lunchtime in Paris.  But they’re so far away from each other!

2.  The Moon. The moon has a time zone of its own, Lunar Standard Time.  Today’s date on the moon is 42-12-21.  So if I go to the moon, I’ll probably need a separate moon calendar, and perhaps a moon watch, though I’m not certain about that.  What I do know is that the time (and date) on the moon bear no relation to the time and date on Earth, or even in Paris, where it’s still lunchtime.

3.  The North Pole. There isn’t a time at the North Pole.  The moon has a time, but the North Pole doesn’t.  The reason the North Pole doesn’t have a time zone is because there’s no permanent human presence at the North Pole – which makes me wonder if there’s something that we’re not being told about the moon?  If you go to the North Pole, you can just choose (arbitrarily) to be in whichever time zone you like.  This means that you can be in a totally different time zone to the person standing next to you and the same time zone as someone standing inside Starbucks in Croydon.  Or Johannesburg.  Or any Starbucks you like.

4.  The South Pole. The South Pole is on New Zealand time, despite being a long way from it.  This is because most of the things that the polar bases consume are imported from New Zealand.  But in Britain, most of the goods we consume come from China, though we’re not on Chinese time (yet). This is good as their next New Year is in February, and my New Year guests arrive in December, and there’s only so much of me they can take.

Map of The International Date Line in Colour, Globe

The International Date Line

5. The International Date Line. You may have already noticed that it’s not straight.  This means that if you travel sort of North-Eastish, by sea, from New Zealand, the date may change several times on the way.  The date line isn’t a time zone though, so when the date changes, the time doesn’t.  So you know it’s 2pm, because that’s what your watch tells you, but you don’t know if it’s today, yesterday, tomorrow or Thursday – which must make arranging shipboard entertainments damn nigh impossible.  And what if one of the days is your birthday?  If you’ve worked on a sort of North-Eastish-sailing ship from New Zealand for a few years, you could end up having your fifty-ninth birthday at the age of twenty-seven.  And then your presents would be inappropriate.  What twenty-seven year old wants a subscription to the Radio Times and a pair of Totes Toasties for their birthday?

6.  Trains. The Indian Pacific train in Australia has its own time zone.  On its journey between Kalgoorlie and Kalgoorlie the time on the train bears absolutely no relation to the time zone that the train is in.  This is because it crosses several time zones (including a weird one that changes in half hour increments).  I find this confusing, but compared to British trains – which also seem to operate in their own time zone, one that bears no relation to either the time outside the train or the published timetable – it seems quite straightforward.

7.  Greenwich. Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is the time zone of zero degrees longitude.  Greenwich is in London.  London switches to Summer Time (BST) during the summer months.  This means that London is an hour ahead of Greenwich in the summer.  But, as Greenwich is in London, Greenwich is also an hour ahead of itself.  This makes my head hurt.  But if anyone can think of a way in which I can exploit this to plan a heist or win the lottery, please let me know.

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  1. I spent quite a long time yesterday trying to work out whether if you flew fast enough roud the world you would, due to the date line, be able to land before you set off. It took me far too long to realise that time travel is somewhat more complex than this.

  2. I am organising travel for my boss. In a week she is crossing the date line four times. I am so god damn confused.

    Scheduling meetings which are after each other sequentially but technically the second is before the first if you look at the dates they take place on.


  3. Two reasons why this post is confusing:
    1. “This means that when it’s lunchtime in Cape Town, it’s lunchtime in Paris, and when it’s teatime in Cape Town, it’s lunchtime in Paris.”
    2. “On its journey between Kalgoorlie and Kalgoorlie….”

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