How Wrong Is Your Clock?

Oct 31, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in March 2014. Don’t forget to reset your clocks this Sunday, fellow Americans!]

SolarTimeVsStandardTimeWaking up every morning to a pile of emails sent from the East Coast, Europe, and Russia makes me think about time zones. Living in California, it seems that we are behind virtually all the rest of world. New Year’s Eve turns into a parade of midnight celebrations around the world, and throughout the year all business phone calls must be made in the morning before offices close in other time zones. Behind us are only Alaska, Hawaii, and a few Pacific islands that rarely matter in our daily life. Such is the physical geography of time. But to what extent do various parts of the world keep with astronomical time, I wondered? Math blogger and Google engineer Stefano Maggiolo answered that question by creating a map that shows the difference between “solar time” and “clock time”, that is the discrepancy between the time when the sun is at its highest point in the sky and 12 noon as it is officially reckoned. On Maggiolo’s map, places where the sun rises and sets later than it should are shown in red and those where the sun rises and sets earlier than it should are shown in green. The deeper the shade, the farther off the local clocks are.

As Joshua Keating notes in his article in, for various reasons, more of the world seems to be late rather than early. One case that has drawn particular attention recently is Spain, where the government is now considering a proposal to move the country out of the time zone that includes France, Germany and Italy and to join the more geographically natural slot with Portugal and Britain. But, as the New York Times journalist Jim Yardley points out, such a switch would imply

“a fundamental change to Spanish life. For decades, many Spaniards have taken a long midday siesta break for lunch and a nap. Under a new schedule, that would be truncated to an hour or less. Television programs would be scheduled an hour earlier. And the elastic Spanish working day would be replaced by something closer to a 9-to-5 timetable.”

Spain, moreover, is not in the deepest red category on Maggiolo’s map, with “worse offenders” appearing elsewhere. Many other “deep red” areas result from the desire of states or subnational units (such as states within the U.S.) to maintain uniform time across their territory. This is the case, for example, in China, where all the clocks are set to Beijing time. As a result, in far-western Xinjiang solar noon happens as late as 3 p.m., placing Western China in the “deep red” category. As a result, and in defiance of the government, many members of the region’s Uighur minority observe their own time.

But selecting a uniform time zone for a whole country may lead to the opposite effect as well. Thus, the eastern portion of India is in the “green” category because India also has a single time zone. In the far-eastern state of Assam, the sun rises shortly before 6 a.m. in the winter, more than 90 minutes earlier than in the west, and as early as 4:30 a.m. around the summer solstice. Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi is leading a campaign to scrap India’s single time zone and create a local time for Assam and the other northeastern states, which would be ahead of Indian Standard Time by an hour to 90 minutes. Gogoi points out that tea gardens in Assam have for years set their clocks an hour ahead of the rest of the country and claims that retaining Indian Standard Time results in a loss of daylight hours and an attendant decrease in productivity for his state.

While most of the world’s countries have only one time zone, there are exceptions: nine countries with two time zones, three countries with three time zones, one country each with four, six and eight time zones, two countries with five time zones, two countries with nine time zones, one country with eleven time zones, and one country with a whopping twelve time zones. Can you guess which country uses the most time zones? (Scroll to the bottom of the post to see the answer.)

About half of the countries with multiple time zones use them for outlying areas or former colonial possessions. Examples include: the Canary Islands, whose clocks are set one hour behind the rest of Spain; Caribbean islands that constitute a part of Kingdom of the Netherlands, whose clocks are five hours behind the European core; and the Galápagos Province of Equador, whose clocks are one hour behind the rest of the country. Several other multi-time-zoned countries are island nations spanning vast expanses of the Pacific, such as The Federated States of Micronesia (2 time zones) and Kiribati (3 time zones). Despite their multiple zones, these countries typically appear in the pink or even the green category on Maggiolo’s map,

Only ten countries use more than one time zone for their mainland territories: Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and DR Congo (2 time zones each), Mexico and Indonesia (3 time zones each), Brazil (4 time zones, 3 of which are used for mainland Brazil), Canada (6 time zones), Australia (8 time zones, 3 of which are used for the mainland), Russia (9 time zones), and the US (11 time zones, 6 of which are used for the 50 US states). With the exception of Russia, these countries too have a fair amount of territory shaded pink or green on Maggiolo’s map.


Russia’s case is peculiar, as it has the most “deep red” territory—that is, places where the sun is at its highest point significantly later than at 12 noon. There are several reasons for this situation, related to periodic changes in how Russia observes time. Before 1917, most of the Russian Empire observed local solar time. But since the introduction of the railways, train schedules have always used a uniform time based on the longitude of the Vitebsky railway station in Saint Petersburg, formerly known as the Tsarskoe Selo Station, the first railway station built in the Russian Empire. (The airlines, in contrast, use local time at departure and arrival airports.) In 1919, Russia was divided into eleven time zones. The same government decree introduced the 24-hour clock (e.g. 16:00 for 4 p.m.) although in everyday usage the 12-hour clock remains common. In 1924, the 11-time zone scheme was officially extended to the entire Soviet Union. In June 1930, by a decree of the Council of People’s Commissars, all clocks in the Soviet Union were permanently shifted one hour ahead of standard time for each time zone. This shift, known as the Decree Time, remained in effect all year, unlike Daylight Saving Time, which was introduced in the USSR in 1981. As a result of these two changes, time reckoning in the , summer came to be two hours ahead of solar time. As a result, local areas began to abandon Decree Time in the 1980s, a movement that was formalized across the country in March 1991. But Decree Time was reestablished in January 1992, allegedly due to “reduced length of daylight, public discontent and increasing energy consumption”.

The Soviet Union’s eleven time zones, introduced in 1919, were retained for some time, but changes to the boundaries of individual time zones were introduced in 1993, 2002, and 2010 effectively abolishing Decree Time in many areas and bringing Russia closer to “solar time”. New legislation initiated in 2010 by President Dmitry Medvedev, however, settled Russia once again on permanent Daylight Savings Time, as it abolished “the transition to winter time”. This year-round offset from “solar time” by one hour resulted in red shading for virtually all Russian territory on Maggiolo’s map. At the time, such changes prompted criticism that the government was addressing marginal issues at the expense of the country’s more serious problems. Yet the issue is still far from settled. In February 2012, the populist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky put forward another legislative project that would bring Russia back into (permanent) “winter time”. The proposal made no headway, however, as such issues are in the jurisdiction of the Government of Russian Federation; as a result, the national parliament—the Duma—did not even consider Zhirinovsky’s proposal.


Another law, signed on August 31, 2011 by the then-Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin, reduced the number of Russia’s time zones from eleven to nine. This was achieved by abolishing two zones. The first to disappear was so-called Kamchatka Time (MSK+9 or UTC+12): Chukotka Autonomous Okrug and Kamchatka Krai started using the Magadan Time (MSK+8 or UTC+11) instead. The law also made the Samara region and Udmurtia, two areas in central Russia, shift to the Moscow time zone, thus eliminating the Samara Time (MSK+1 or UTC+4). The official motivation declared by Medvedev was to “help some far-flung regions have more efficient communications with the central authorities, ease travel and even improve the country’s international position”. Yet not everybody in the affected regions has accepted this explanation. An online petition against the law circulated in the Samara region gathered thousands of signatures. One of the most prominent complaints was that “moving Samara to a new time zone would make it a disorienting two hours behind its eastern neighbors and that sunset would be painfully early in the winter”. The current 9-time-zone status quo is potentially subject to additional changes, such as bringing the exclave of Kaliningrad to Moscow Time, which would put it an hour ahead of all its neighbors, and a switch of the vast Sakha Republic, which now has three time zones, to a single clock.

I will conclude with a personal anecdote on the perceived political significance of time zone divisions. Around the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a proposal was put forward to move Belarus from the Moscow Time to the UTC+3 time zone. As a prank, my father wrote an anonymous letter to a Belarusian newspaper, pretending to be an anti-Semite and claiming that the proposed change was a Zionist provocation aiming to bring Belarus closer to Israel Standard Time (UTC+2). To everybody’s surprise and my father’s consternation, the letter was not only published but it also prompted an editorial response bashing the “Zionist conspiracy” allegedly behind the proposal .


ANSWER: France (including its overseas territories) has twelve time zones—more than any other country in the world—ranging from UTC−10:00 in most of French Polynesia to UTC+12:00 in Wallis and Futuna.

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