Bizarre Borders - Time Zone Edition

Samanyu Ram

October 14, 2022

Every country on Earth belongs to a time zone. A time zone is an area that observes a uniform standard time for legal, commercial, and social purposes. Generally, the rule for establishing time zones branches off the line of latitude the country is within. Why is this the case? What establishes time zones? Are there any outliers that differ from the other countries? Let's dive into this edition of Bizarre Borders to find out.

You may have heard of the abbreviation, GMT + or - a number, but what does this mean? GMT, or Greenwich Mean Time, is the United Kingdom's standard time zone. This time zone is the basis for every other one in the world. Since it was the first country to adopt a standard time zone, every other county is either GMT + # of hours or GMT - # of hours. For example, the U.S. has four mainland time zones for each hour behind London's clock. New York is in the Atlantic Time Zone, GMT - 5, or 5 hours behind London. However, California is further west and in the Pacific Time Zone at GMT - 8.

GMT can go as far back as 12 hours but, in contrast, skips ahead as far forward as 14 hours. Baker Island and Howland Island, two uninhabited desolate plots of land in the Pacific Ocean, are both GMT - 12. Kiribati, an inhabited minuscule group of islands, is also located in the Pacific Ocean at GMT + 14. What's really bizarre is that Baker island is several hundred miles EAST of Kiribati and is behind them by more than a day. It's a result of the International Date Line, whose borders, much like countries, don't make much sense. In 1994, Kiribati was originally slated at GMT - 12 but decided to move the date line to the west, bringing them to GMT + 14 and actually skipping an entire day in the process. 

Another wacky situation lies on the border of China and Afghanistan. Between September and October of 1949, China adopted the time GMT + 8. The significance of this adoption is that China is the third or fourth, depending on who you ask, the largest country in the world. China using a universal time zone for the whole country causes awkward situations. GMT + 8 is Beijing time, which means a city in the far west of China would receive sunlight as late as 10 a.m. Afghanistan is also a bit different from most as its time zone is GMT + 4.5, or four hours and 30 minutes. Crossing the Afghan-Chinese border would result in a three-and-a-half-hour time difference, the most extreme difference on the globe.