The Earth seen from Apollo 17. Photo by NASA - Apollo 17 crew.
All Aboard The Island Republic Remixing Time Zones and Date Lines.
Every day has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is always the same: it’s the island republic of Kiribati, a vast constellation of atolls dispersed across 1.4 million square miles of Pacific Ocean. Kiribati – pronounced Kiribas – is the only nation on Earth to permanently trespass into GMT+14: the earliest time zone in the world. You can think of Kiribati as the eternal land of tomorrow: if it’s Sunday where you are, it’s probably Monday in Kiribati. Fittingly, its flag depicts a sun rising perpetually above the waves.
Kiribati is also one of the few places in the world to straddle all four hemispheres, which means that, because its habitable land consists of just thirty-three delicate atolls (ring-shaped coral reef islands – could it get more romantic?) it can be rather hard to locate on a map. Ever in pursuit of a challenge though, let’s not let that stop us…
To find Kiribati, first find a bold north-south line cutting through the Pacific Ocean. This is the International Date Line: trace it to the point where it’s interrupted from its simple trajectory and cuts out dramatically to the right, forming the shape of a kind of sideways ‘T’. That rectangle represents two time zones, GMT+14 and GMT+13 (note: I’m using GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time here, which may be to do with my London childhood but it’s also increasingly referred to by the initials UTC or Universal Time, Coordinated). These rarest of time zones were established by Kiribati, on an entirely unilateral basis, on 31 December 1994, for the purpose of removing certain absurdities from the daily lives of its citizens.
International Date Line South Pacific.
Kiribati’s territory incorporates three distinct groups of islands: sixteen Gilbert Islands roughly halfway between Hawaii and Papua New Guinea, eight Phoenix Islands in the seas north of Samoa, and eight Line Islands, not too far from Tuvalu. When Kiribati was granted sovereignty over the Line Islands in 1979, shortly after itself gaining independence from the United Kingdom, it found they posed a chronological puzzle. The trouble was their new additions were the other side of the International Date Line which meant that when it was, say, Saturday in Tarawa, which is the most heavily-populated of the Kiribati atolls, it would be Friday on Kiritimati (also known as Christmas Island) in the Line Islands to the east.
This wasn’t just a matter of a few hours, either. The International Date Line is one of the messier reminders that the time we set our watches by is not preordained but rather an ingenious human construct. In the case of Kiritamati and Tarawa, they were divided by a whole, unambiguous day. Government offices became exasperated by only being able speak to one another four days a week and so, figuring the date line to be largely fictitious anyway, they moved it.
A map of Kiribati.
No time zone ‘really’ exists. They are guided by the light – the Earth rotates, causing the sun to rise and set, and our local times of day reflect this – but the rigidity of their contours are an example of how society relies on the fabrication of some sort of consensual reality. Usually this is straightforward enough that we can just accept it. But the system is filled with subtle Matrix-like glitches, of which Kiribati’s predicament is just one example.
Time zones were created partly as a response to the creation of the railroads and the need for precise departure times, and partly as a response to being able – for the first time – to move and communicate across great distances at a high speed. As you might imagine, it was always quite hard to get jet lag while travelling on foot. Oddly though, the quirks of time zones have made doing so easier. For example, in around 1950, China renounced its five-time-zone-system, bringing the country instead under a single China Standard Time, corresponding to GMT+8. China is around 5000km from east to west: an enormous distance, spanning nearly 10% of the circumference of earth. This creates an interesting situation wherein a traveller crossing the land border from China into neighbouring Afghanistan (a country which adheres to GMT+4.30) would experience – in a single step – an instantaneous three and a half hour leap back in time. This border happens to consist of a forbidding stretch of mountains that contains no roads and is impassable for at least four months of the year — but still.
Of course, readers in the Pacific may find a leap of three and a half hours a walk in the park. Back in Kiribati, one of the strangest of the many strange things about the earliest time zone in the world is that it is just next door to the latest time zone in the world. You can, if it amuses you, be the first person to see a day begin in Kiribati, then sail a few nautical miles in the direction of Ecuador, and be the last person to see it end*.
*In need of a little assistance in navigating the head-spins of GMT? The TAG Heuer Aquaracer, with its bi-directional, bi-coloured 24-hour bezel has a neat, sleek ability to track multiple time zones.
Seb Emina Writer