Image: Golli.

Stop All the Clocks

 In Magazine, Magazine Intro, Politics, Society

Words by Ragnar Tómas Hallgrímsson

Photography by Golli

Few issues have garnered as much attention – and feedback – as the contentious suggestion to move the Icelandic clock back one hour to better align with solar time.

“We should let the clock alone,” one Icelander protests. “It’s not the clock’s fault that the Icelanders go to sleep late.” According to a report commissioned by the Ministry of Health, however, this may not be true: “Individuals residing in the westernmost area of a given time zone go to sleep later and sleep less than individuals residing more easterly, where the sun rises earlier.” Additionally, Iceland observes Greenwich Mean Time, which means that it is an entire zone to the west of its “correct” geographical time zone.

Another Icelander, advocating for the status quo, also ignores these findings: “There is no problem here, just people with too much free time on their hands who invent problems and then ‘solutions.’” This too, according to the report, is not true. On average, Icelanders go to sleep later than citizens in neighbouring countries, and Icelandic teenagers sleep less than their European counterparts. In other words, the problem is real.

Despite such findings, Icelanders are not convinced that changing the clock will have a positive impact. In this era of fake news, where opinions and facts often get confused, the clock debate is worth a closer look.

A brief history of Icelandic time

The origin of this “issue with the clocks” can be traced back to 1907 when the Icelandic government formally adopted Icelandic Mean Time, eliminating time difference between different parts of the country. With this legislation, all of Iceland conformed to the country’s given time zone (UTC-1), as established by the International Meridian Conference in Washington D.C. in 1884. As before, the Icelandic clock corresponded roughly to solar time; when the sun reached its zenith, the Icelandic clock struck noon (or around 12.30pm).

In 1917, following in the footsteps of Germany and other European countries, Iceland adopted daylight saving time, moving the clocks forward in the summer and back again in winter. The reason, as noted in the report, was to “achieve greater harmony between daylight and working hours, which in turn was believed to save energy.”

The Icelandic government exercised its right to advance the clock in 1917 and 1918, but not again until 1939, when daylight saving time was readopted. It remained in continuous effect until 1968, when new legislation was passed in which Iceland adopted “summer time,” or Greenwich Mean Time, the whole year round. Under this new arrangement, noon in Iceland was delayed by an hour (from 12.30pm to 13.30pm). According to a memorandum that accompanied the legislation, the twice-yearly moving of the clock was a hassle. It caused “confusion” in airline schedules; necessitated the “resetting of clocking-in machines;” “disturbed the sleep habits of individuals, and especially infants;” and, more importantly, perhaps, given that darkness was a non-issue during summer (the sun doesn’t set from mid-June to mid-July), most Icelanders favoured more sunlight later in the day – as opposed to in the mornings. But that was 1968.

New science

As noted in the report that prompted the debate, new research has emerged suggesting the adverse health effects of circadian misalignment: “An early clock means that the sun rises later, which is likely to distort the information that the body uses to coordinate physiological processes.” There is even research suggesting a link between circadian misalignment and cancer.

Addressing the subject online, Professor Richard G. Stevens at the University of Connecticut – whose work focuses mainly on the aetiology of cancer – writes: “One hour in the course of human activity may not matter much in the middle of the day, but at the beginning of the day, when the physiological transition from night to day should begin, it can make a difference in circadian alignment. With each such wake-up in the dark, there comes a small degree of circadian misalignment and a slight phase advance. Phase advance is the body thinking it’s sunrise before the sun has actually risen.” The question many researchers are studying is whether this small circadian disruption occurring daily for years or decades can make diseases like cancer more likely.

When asked about the subject of the Icelandic clock, Stevens referred to the issue as a “wicked problem.” “There is no simple solution that will satisfy everyone,” he wrote. “I suspect that the reason Iceland uses UTC-0 instead of UTC-1 is for business and commerce. This is part of the wicked problem. How to balance robust commerce with optimum human health?”

On the other hand

Most detractors of the clock-moving measure fear losing precious sunlight during the dark winter afternoons and evenings. “I believe that the health of my compatriots will decline considerably if the clock is moved back,” one Icelander writes. “You are taking an hour away from individuals who exercise after work, who play golf, who go for walks, who ride their bikes, etc.”

This argument, which is based on personal experience, rings true for many people. The problem is that such statements fail to address the scientific literature. As Till Roenneberg, a professor of chronobiology at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich explains, “the human biological clock, which regulates processes from gene expression to behaviour, like that of most organisms, synchronises to the Earth’s 24-hour rotation using signals from the environment (zeitgebers). This synchronisation is an active process called entrainment. If humans were entrained by social time, average sleep-wake behaviour should not change from East to West,” Professor Roenneberg writes. His results “strongly suggest that the human circadian clock is predominantly entrained by sun time rather than by social time.”

The experts agree

The authors of the report commissioned by the Ministry of Health were unequivocal in their recommendation that the clock be moved back. And so is Dr. Sigurðardóttir: “What’s most important as regards this ‘issue with the clocks,’ in my opinion, is that social time and circadian time are not in sync. All living things, human beings included, coordinate biological processes with the help of the sun. The circadian clocks of most human beings does not synch with the clock on the wall, which means that unlike the clock on the wall, we must reset ourselves every day and the best way to do that is with sunlight in the morning. I understand the perspective of those who want sunlight later in the day, but from a biological perspective, it’s healthier for us to get more sunlight in the mornings.”

Where does this leave us?

Last January 17, Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir decided that parliament would not vote on the “clock issue” this spring. “The matter has been in review for a week and we have received more than a thousand comments, which tells me something that I like best about the Icelanders – they don’t bite their tongues when one asks for their opinion. They show up and speak up.” The only real question, perhaps, is whose voices the government will heed?

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

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