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Friday, May 24, 2024
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Clock changing, your time is up

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IT’S THE last Sunday in October, and as we put back by one hour all our timepieces and central heating programmers, do we give any thought as to why we are doing this? They have done so in Mexico, and as a result they are to scrap daylight saving time.

The Mexican government has realised that changing the clocks twice a year is bad for health because it disrupts our circadian rhythm and leaves us tired. Tiredness can lead to irritability, lassitude and error which is not great for personal relationships, productivity or for any activity in which safety is critical. It’s an enlightened act by the Mexicans which I applaud.

In my working life as an airline pilot, time-zone-crossing happened almost every day. Airline crews have to cope not only with anti-social work routines, but those on long-haul routes deal with crossing several time-zones in the course of one flight. On arrival they find themselves severely out of phase with local time. This is commonly called jet-lag, a term which should really apply to those flying eastwards. The phenomenon should be called jet-advance for west-bound flights. A run of several such duties with shortened or lengthened exposure to daylight will mess with body clocks and leave crews deeply fatigued, which is why there are strict flight-time and duty limitations placed on them. Some would say not strict enough. 

That’s the extreme but the principle of being out of phase with our natural bio-rhythms holds good for even one-hour changes. It would be far better for us to stay on natural time which is governed by the sun. It is the rotation of the Earth (sunrise, sunset) and the orbit of the moon (tides etc) which govern all the rhythms of life. 

Ever since it was decided that the line of zero longitude should pass through Greenwich (much to the chagrin of the French who wanted it through Paris), the sun reaching its zenith at Greenwich has determined noon Greenwich Mean Time, or Universal Co-ordinated Time (UTC) as it is called now. Before the advent of railways, time-keeping was a bit messy. Local time in the UK was everywhere based on local noon so according to the sun midday in Bristol was somewhat behind midday in London. The necessity to produce timetables for trains dictated that the whole country should be on the same time; a sensible move and we can all understand why.

Given that the Earth rotates once every 24 hours and there are 360 degrees of longitude (180° West to 180° East), one hour of earthly rotation or the arc the sun follows in one hour equates to 15° of longitude. Therefore when it is noon at Greenwich it is 1pm at 15° East and 11am at 15° West, natural time. Those who holiday in Cornwall or West Wales can see evidence of this because sunrise and sunset are 15 to 20 minutes later than in London. Ireland is further behind but since longitude 7.5° West runs through the heart of the island it’s sensible for it to be in the same time zone as the UK. If it were on natural time it would be 30 minutes behind London.

The Summer Time Act of 1916 introduced the clock-change following a campaign by builder William Willett. Farmers had something to say about it as well. It shifted an hour of daylight from the beginning of the working day to the end which people in certain occupations maintained was more congenial for them. We had a period of double summer time for a while between 1941 and 1945, presumably because it was better for mounting bomber raids and planning invasions. 

Then there was a British Standard Time experiment between 1968 and 1971 with Britain remaining on GMT+1 for the whole year. I was at school in Edinburgh and university in Aberdeen during those three winters and I remember them well. Dawn wasn’t until nearly 9am although I will admit it was quite nice not to be plunged into darkness at 3pm.

Now to the present. By putting our clocks forward by one hour at the end of March we are putting ourselves on a local time natural for longitude 15° East, basically the German/Polish border. If we were to adopt European time, as some would like us to do, we would put our clocks forwards to UTC+2 for the spring, summer and early autumn months, a time optimised for 30° East: Chernobyl time. Good for solidarity with Ukraine but we would be two hours out of phase with the sun which would not reach its zenith until 2pm. That means that the hottest time of day would be between 5pm and 6pm.

The working conditions for construction workers and farmers and the technology they employ have moved on since 1916. Anyone who has observed farmers harvesting late in the evening or motorway maintenance teams working under powerful lights can see this. Heavy industry is largely a thing of the past and most people work at occupations which keep them indoors. There is surely no need for us to change to British Summer Time in March any longer. I’ll go further: not only should we not be on European time but since nearly all of France and the whole of Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal is West of 7.5° East, those countries should join us in our time zone. Portugal is the only one which does.

So it’s time to grasp the nettle and do away with British Summer Time once and for all. There will be those who squawk because it doesn’t suit their circumstances. But there will still be the same amount of daylight, folks, just not where you’re used to it. Things would stay the same in winter but in summer mornings will be lighter and evenings darker. In the summer I’d avoid sleeping in an east-facing room unless you want a 3am reveille. And put in earplugs because the dawn chorus will be in full voice too. Despite that, we’d all feel better because we’d be living permanently with the natural rhythms of life.

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Iain Hunter
Iain Hunter
Iain Murray Hunter is a former RAF officer/fighter pilot and retired airline pilot.

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