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Definition of time zones

Before 1972, all time zones were specified as an offset from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), 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. UTC, also called Zulu time, is used everywhere on Earth by astronomers and others who need to state the time of an event unambiguously.

Timezones are based on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), the mean solar time at longitude 0° (the Prime Meridian). The definition of GMT was recently changed – it was previously the same as UT1, a mean solar time calculated directly from the rotation of the Earth. As the Earth’s rotation rate is not constant, the time derived from atomic clocks was adjusted to match UT1 closely. In January 1972, however, the second length in Greenwich Mean Time and atomic time was equalized. The readings of participating atomic clocks are averaged out to give a uniform time scale.

Because the length of the average day is a small fraction of a second more than 24 hours (slightly more than 86400 seconds), 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, the rotation rate is slightly irregular from one year to the next, so leap seconds are not added unless observations of Earth’s rotation show that one is required. 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 to define their time zones. As of 2005, most nations had altered the definition of local time in this way.

In the UK, this involved redefining Greenwich Mean Time to make it the same as UTC. British Summer Time (BST) is still one hour before Greenwich Mean Time and is, therefore, one hour before Coordinated Universal Time. Thus Greenwich Mean Time is the local time at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, between 0100 hours GMT on the last Sunday in October and 0100 hours GMT on the last Sunday in March. Similar circumstances apply in many other places.

Leap seconds are considered by many to be a nuisance, 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.