Land of the setting sun

A series of stories about light and time

Pranay Varada | March 9, 2024

I. Minamitorishima

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean lies a small triangular atoll, just over half a square mile in area, more than 600 miles from the nearest semblance of land. It belongs to Japan, and is its easternmost territory, but no one lives here. The island is only occasionally visited by meteorologists and military personnel.

Those who come, though, are greeted with a peculiar distinction: Minamitorishima, as this island is called, is the northernmost place in the world to never see a sunset after 6:00 pm.

This is the land of the setting sun.


1. "At least the trains ran on time"

Time zones didn't exist until the late 19th century. For millennia, humans have observed the position of the sun in the sky, and the time of day at which it was highest in particular. Solar noon eventually became the basis of local solar time, which individual cities used to set their clocks. But the world grew more connected, and the hundreds of different local times led to confusion as people and goods traveled more frequently.

In 1853, 14 people were killed when a train traveling to Providence, Rhode Island collided into another destined for Worcester, Massachusetts. The conductors of the trains had their watches set to different local times, despite the two cities being just 36 miles apart. At the time, New England railways were seeing an average of five train wrecks a year. It would be simpler, railway companies surmised, if all of their hubs just followed the same time. That was the beginning of “railway time,” which countries gradually started adopting for more than just trains.

Twenty-three years later, a Canadian Pacific Railway engineer named Sandford Fleming was in the small seaside town of Bundoran, Ireland, when he arrived for what he thought was a 5:35 pm train to Londonderry.

He was 12 hours late. The train had been scheduled for 5:35 am. He had been hoodwinked by the 12-hour clock.

A lot of people in this situation would wait the night out, leave the next morning. Not Fleming. He was the chief engineer for what was going to become one of the biggest railways in the world. So he sat down and created a system of timekeeping for the entire world.

Eventually, Fleming settled on 24 time zones, each 15 degrees of longitude wide. When it was noon in Greenwich, London – the most popular longitudinal reference point – it would be 1 pm in Prague, 2 pm in Cairo, and so on. With the Earth rotating 360 degrees in 24 hours, Fleming's system made a lot of sense.1 Half a century later, pretty much the entire world was in agreement. Countries slotted into the time zone that fit their location best, or if they were wider than 15 degrees2, they divided their territory between multiple time zones. And everyone lived happily ever after, with their clocks set close enough to solar noon that they could go about their day just the same as before.

Well, at least that's what should have happened. If only it actually did.


2. "With glowing hearts we see thee rise"

At 24.3 degrees north, Minamitorishima is actually further north than Key West, Florida, the southernmost city in the lower 48. The average location at that latitude3 has a sunset as late as 7:26 pm at some point in the year. The latest sunset Minamitorishima sees is at 5:36 pm, on June 27. That's almost two hours out of whack.

This is not normal. Of course, plenty of places see the sun set before 5:30 pm during large swaths of the year. New York City, for example, has these “early sunsets” – a term I'll use to define pre-5:30 pm sunsets – for 102 days, or 28 percent of the year. Generally, the further north (or south) you go from the Equator, the more early sunsets you experience throughout the year, as winter days get shorter and shorter. But the flipside is that you get later sunsets in the summer. New York gets post-8 pm sunsets for 91 days out of the year. That tends to be the tradeoff of living at higher latitudes: less daylight, earlier sunsets in the winter; more daylight, later sunsets in the summer.

People around the world have no way of changing how much daylight they get. Sunrise to sunset is 12 hours everywhere on the Equator. On the winter solstice, every location at 45 degrees north gets 8 hours and 45 minutes of daylight, and it's the same at 45 degrees south. What people can change is the time the sun sets.

One way people can adjust their natural time zone to change sunset times is, of course, Daylight Saving Time. Whether intended as a way to conserve fuel or to maximize sunlight hours, DST generally allows countries in the middle and upper latitudes to advance sunset times by one hour in the spring and summer months. While sunsets during these months are already later than in the winter, we choose to advance one hour anyway because the weather is nice(r) and if we have the luxury of enjoying it for one more hour, why not?

That raises the question, of course, of why countries like the United States that make widespread use of DST don't just make DST permanent, giving us later sunsets year-round and sparing us the depressing sight of the sun going down way too early in winter. One reason why – and why efforts to make DST permanent may ultimately fail – is because not everyone has that luxury, thanks to sunrises. At higher latitudes, too-early sunsets also mean late sunrises, and advancing those sunrise times by one hour might not be the best thing for people's circadian rhythms. In 2022, when the DST debate was at its legislative peak, the Washington Post looked at latest sunrise times across the United States under a system of permanent DST, and found that some parts of the lower 48 would, at some point in winter, be in the dark until 9:30 am. Delaying sunsets comes at a cost, even though the economic benefits could be substantial. Pretty much everyone agrees that our biannual clock switching is dumb and very confusing, but whether permanent standard time or permanent DST will win out is still unclear.

At this point, daylight saving time is a brilliant way for us to justify our unnatural sleep schedules, which are now driven more by economics than by the sun. For those who oppose it, it seems that the Canadians giveth, and the Canadians taketh away: Port Arthur, a town in Sandford Fleming's province of Ontario, became the first city to enact DST in 1908. And who could blame them? The sun is irresistible. (Except to Arizonans and Hawaiians, apparently.)

But regardless of what you believe about the merits of daylight saving time, some things just cannot be condoned.


3. Rise and grind

“Permanent daylight saving time” is just another way of describing a simple change to the time zone of a country or region, to take it out of its Flemingian ideal. This deviation is by no means an idea unique to the United States. Just take a look at the map of the world, with time zones superimposed:



It is immediately clear that there are a lot of places in the world where something is wrong. Even if you ignore the Arctic regions, which you can safely do because time zone doesn't matter as much when you're in the “land of the midnight sun,” a large part of the world is not in the time zone you would expect. You see fractional time zones, most visibly in India but also in Iran, Afghanistan, parts of Canada and Australia, and elsewhere. These, at least, come from a genuine attempt to get even closer to solar time, when the standard hourly zones don't do a region justice. But other regions, and even countries, are in the entirely “wrong” time zone. Look at Argentina, following UTC-3 (three hours behind Greenwich) while lying within the longitude ranges of UTC-4 and even UTC-5. Look at Spain and Morocco, sticking with UTC+1 despite all evidence to the contrary. And look at China, the worst offender of the sun by some measure, uniformly abiding by UTC+8 even though parts of the country are well within the range of three hours ahead by solar time. All of these mind-boggling decisions have rationales behind them, but that doesn't make them any less confusing. We'll get to those decisions later.

Now look at this map:



This is a map of the difference between locations' solar times and their standard times. You can see what has happened. There is way more red than blue, meaning that a lot more of the world is ahead of solar time than behind year-round, translating to later sunsets. Daylight saving time is observed in only a few places outside of North America and Europe; Argentina, Spain, and western China have just effectively adopted permanent DST. Our constant yearning for maximized daylight, then, is universal.

That map, created by Stefano Maggiolo, is how this project started. As a Dallasite who now spends most of winter in the dreary confines of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the idea of the sun setting just after 4 pm was foreign to me. The nature of the college schedule is such that, unlike native Bostonians, I don't get to reap the 8:30-pm-sunset benefits of living at this northern latitude, by virtue of not being here in the summer. Instead, I'm mostly here during the November-to-March period of standard time.

If you look at the map, this slice of eastern Massachusetts is actually slightly in the blue. This means that during those winter months, we get earlier sunsets than our location would suggest based on solar time. On the other side of the Eastern Standard Time zone, you have cities of similar latitudes like Grand Rapids, Michigan, which never see the sun set before 5 pm and have 9:30 pm sunsets in the summer thanks to DST. That also means having quite a few days where the sun doesn't rise until 8 am, but that's what you get with the red. Maybe the sun won't be up when you get to work, but it's not going to be pitch black outside when you leave.

Despite being in the blue, I knew I didn't – couldn't – have it the worst. The map showed me that there were more of these blue zones, places that go against the global norm of pushing for later sunsets. 4 pm sunsets felt wrong, but there had to be cities with sunset times that were even more incongruous with their latitudes. Locales where what we call seasonal depression is their year-round reality.

But if you get early sunsets all year, can it even be seasonal depression? That's what led me to Minamitorishima. Look at the map again, look for the small box with a +9 on top of it, roughly in the middle vertically and in the east. You'll see it's in the east of the UTC+10 zone, far adrift of anything that suggests it should be in a UTC+9 time zone, even directly south of some Siberian UTC+11 territory. That's Minamitorishima.


4. The early bird gets the worm

Earlier, I told you that New York City gets “early sunsets” – sunsets before 5:30 pm – for 28 percent of the year. In Boston, that number is only slightly higher at 31 percent, and in Warsaw, a more northern city but also one definitely in the blue, it's 38 percent. But this range isn't universal. In Madrid, the percentage of early sunsets is zero. Buenos Aires? Zero. Istanbul? Still zero.

On Minamitorishima, 86 percent of sunsets are early. There's only one part of the world where that number is higher, and it's a lot closer to the Equator. (We'll get to it.) But if the sun even sets before 5:30 in summer, when does it set in winter? I'm glad you asked. The island's earliest sunset is at an unbelievable 3:55 pm, occurring every year around November 21. Again, it doesn't have to be this way. This was deliberate. Take a look at the earliest and latest sunrise times: 3:55 am and 5:29 am. Minamitorishima gets summer days when the sun is up for over thirteen and a half hours, but with absolutely none of the benefits, unless you enjoy waking up in broad daylight at 4 am. It is literally the antithesis of everything daylight saving time stands for.

Spotlight: Minamitorishima

Minamitorishima's daylight predicament is unique in the world to an astounding degree, but there's a pretty straightforward explanation for it. The obvious point is that the island follows the same time zone – UTC+9 – as the rest of Japan. It makes sense for practical reasons, especially considering that the nearest Japanese island to Minamitorishima lies nearly 800 miles to the west; an additional time zone wouldn't be too useful. But adding to that, Japan's time zone already puts a large fraction of the country in the blue, ahead of solar time. Minamitorishima's eastern position just compounds the frequency of early sunsets. And of course, no one lives on the island, so giving it its own time zone would be of benefit to no one but those occasional government personnel. While other countries' uninhabited island territories do abide by time zones befitting of their locations (think the United States' Baker Island and Howland Island in UTC-12, the time zone furthest behind Greenwich, or France's Clipperton Island, 800 miles southwest of Mexico), Minamitorishima is close enough to the rest of Japan to where maintaining the same time zone isn't inconceivable. But it is uniquely weird.

In Japanese, “Japan” is written 日本, transliterated Nihon. Taken literally, it means “origin of the sun,” perhaps from a Japanese prince's 7th-century description of his land to the Sui emperor in China. From the Chinese point of view, Japan lies to the east, making it the land from which the sun rises. This name is the source of the English nickname for Japan, “Land of the Rising Sun.”

From the Japanese home islands, though, there is no Japanese territory further east than Minamitorishima. Every day, the sun rises over Minamitorishima before it does in Tokyo, and every day it sees the sunset before Tokyo does, despite the fact that it's over ten degrees of latitude further south. A speck in the middle of the Pacific, hundreds of miles away from the nearest landmass, it flies in the face of all that we expect of the sun's daily path through the sky. Its name translates to “Southern Bird Island,” but “Bird Island” – Tori-shima – lies nearly a thousand miles to the northwest in the Izu Islands. And incidentally, Japan's southernmost point is also a Bird Island: Okinotorishima, or “Remote Bird Island.” But that's Minamitorishima: the south is the east, the sun rises before 4 am sometimes, and sometimes it sets before 4 pm.

And sure, no one lives there. But there are cities on this planet that do go through the trials of an illogical time zone day after day, maybe less severe than on Minamitorishima but all the more problematic. This is the story of the forgotten lands.


II. The forgotten lands

5. A literal island

I didn't go into this project intending to write about Minamitorishima. I had no idea what I was going to find when I began working on it. My first step was to fire up a Jupyter notebook and launch a program using Python's astral package to get global sunrise and sunset times, which took 24 hours to run.4 What that program spit out, and what constitutes the basis of this project, was a table with 6.4 million rows, each a point on the map separated by tenths of degrees of latitude and longitude.5 For each point, I got the corresponding location's earliest and latest sunrise and sunset of the year, its annual percentage of late sunrises (arbitrarily defined as later than 7:30 am) and early sunsets (as defined earlier, earlier than 5:30 pm), and a few other minor details. This is the very first plot I created:


This is a plot of the latest sunset of the year against latitude, encompassing what we'll call the inhabited world (55 degrees south to 83 degrees north). There are two contiguous clusters in this plot. One, a curve containing the vast, vast majority of the world. The other is Minamitorishima. It's a place on its own time.

But you might notice that while it's on an island all by itself, it's not actually the bottom of the graph, the region with the most consistently early sunsets in the world. I promised I would talk about this part of the world, a place where sunsets after 5:30 pm are a foreign concept.

Welcome to the forgotten lands.


6. “The moonlit wings reflect the stars that guide me towards salvation”

This place is right in the middle of Africa. No, literally. Africa's pole of inaccessibility – the point on the continent furthest from any coast – is just 60 miles away from this parcel of land, under 1,000 square miles in area by my estimation.

This is the southeastern Central African Republic (CAR), in Haut-Mbomou prefecture, a very sparsely populated part of the country hundreds of miles away from the capital. The entire CAR is in UTC+1, or West Africa Time (despite the fact that UTC+2 in Africa is literally called Central Africa Time). Outside the Arctic regions, the southeastern CAR is the easternmost region within UTC+1 territory. Its position just above the Equator, then, makes it a prime candidate for year-round early sunsets, since days don't change all that much at lower latitudes: the difference between the earliest and latest sunsets of the year at the very southeastern tip of the CAR is just 36 minutes (4:51 pm to 5:27 pm). Out of the 6.2 million points on the globe I looked at outside the polar regions, just 16 of them never saw a sunset after 5:30 pm. All of them are here. That's what makes this region special.

Spotlight: Bambouti

At the end of the day,6 though, this is a fairly empty region near the Equator, where the potential for time zone harm is limited by the fairly constant days. Also, the CAR is a big country, roughly the size of Germany and the United Kingdom put together, but it's not wide enough for a uniform time zone to have vastly different effects across the country. For that, we must turn to Asia.


7. “When I came back from the toilet, I thought I had traveled through time”

India and China are the world's two most populous countries, now with almost 3 billion people between them. India spans 30 degrees of longitude, China 60. Keep in mind that time zones were conceptualized to be 15 degrees wide when I tell you that India and China have two time zones between them. All of India is under UTC+5:30, and all of China follows UTC+8.

That's right: two time zones doing the job of six. To be fair to India, UTC+5:30 is the solar time at 82.5 degrees east, which is basically equidistant from the country's westernmost and easternmost points. China's UTC+8:00, though, is the solar time at the 120th meridian east. This is east of Beijing, passing through Hangzhou on China's eastern coast. More importantly, it is forty-six degrees east of China's westernmost point. What should be three time zones away is in fact none.

This is the most egregious time zone in the world.

The China-Afghanistan border is 57 miles long. Afghanistan is in UTC+4:30, which makes sense because it's a good approximation of Kabul's solar time, and the country isn't, you know, thousands of miles wide. Now, this means that if you (for whatever reason) crossed the border into China, you would move three and a half hours east in a single step. This, mind you, is a bigger difference than Los Angeles to New York. The time zones of the entire lower 48 states fit into this line with room to spare.

So what is this part of China that has the wrongest time zone in the world? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's the autonomous region of Xinjiang. It's the opposite of Minamitorishima: it's a land of sleepy sunrises and generously delayed sunsets. It's hundreds of thousands of square miles in area and is home to tens of millions of people.

Welcome to Kashgar.

Spotlight: Kashgar, Xinjiang

With over 700,000 people, Kashgar is the westernmost major city in China. Kashgar sees sunrises as late as 10:16 am and sunsets as late as 10:27 pm, and not because it's particularly far north; it's actually about the same latitude as Baltimore, Maryland. The earliest sunrise of the year is at 7:28 am, and the earliest sunset is at 7:32 pm. This is DST taken to its absolute zenith. Why save one hour of daylight when you can save three?

Well, that's if you're on Beijing Time, anyway. You see, in some sense, time in Xinjiang is up to interpretation. Ask for the time and some people will tell you it's 5 o'clock. Ask somebody else and it might be 7. Both of them are right. Xinjiang is in UTC+Schrödinger.

Time is political in Xinjiang. It's the homeland of the Uyghurs, but with a sizable and growing Han Chinese population as well, who make up the vast majority of China as a whole. The Han population of Kashgar and other cities in Xinjiang tends to stick with standard Beijing Time, while the Uyghur population largely follows the unofficial (but permitted) Xinjiang Time, or UTC+6, which is two hours behind and far more befitting of Xinjiang's location. For some, it's a form of independence, however small, to ignore the capital's time zone.

As you might expect, these dual time zones create all sorts of wrinkles. Firstly, people in Xinjiang live by the sun, not by the clock, regardless of their background: those following Beijing time might eat lunch at 3 pm and dinner at 11 pm, which makes more sense in the Xinjiang times of 1 pm and 9 pm. People don't go to work or school until an astonishing 10 am. Government services and facilities, though, all run on Beijing time, from airports to national exams. But it's not always clear what time people are referring to when they talk about time. A Han Chinese person meeting up with Uyghur friends might show up two hours early, or from their perspective, waiting for everyone else to arrive two hours late. TV channels are scheduled by different time zones depending on which ethnic group their audience belongs to. You always have to be specific with your time zone when in Xinjiang. As one traveler put it: “Friendship with members of both groups, while possible, necessitates considerable skill and maneuverability… the clocks in your house can win an ally in an instant, or cause deep offense and arouse suspicion.”

And it gets more serious than that. One Uyghur man was reportedly detained on terrorism charges for setting his watch to Xinjiang time, becoming one of at least a million Uyghurs “taken away” by the government for arbitrary reasons. Clocks are just another victim of the Chinese government's desire to “unify” the country, dating back to the formation of the People's Republic in 1949, when Mao Zedong set all of China to Beijing Time. For the Uyghurs, it's just another indication of the government's totalitarian nature. Even in 1968, there was a failed decree that attempted to forbid Xinjiang Time from being used. Now, as the Han Chinese population in Xinjiang looks set to surpass that of the Uyghurs for the first time, Xinjiang Time – the more sensible time – may be limited to a minority in the future, snuffed out by temporal imperialism.

I'll end this section, though, on two more comical notes. The first, a more darkly comical one. You know how I mentioned that Beijing time in Xinjiang is DST taken to its absolute zenith? That actually isn't true, because from 1986 to 1991, all of China observed daylight saving time. This means that far western China, which operated under UTC+5:30 before 1949, was masquerading as a UTC+9 region during the summer. China's westernmost point, at 73.5 degrees east, had the same time as Minamitorishima, 80 degrees further east, or over a fifth of the way around the world. For what it's worth, the sun set in Kashgar as late as 11:27 pm, and it never rose before 8:23 am. So as bad as Xinjiang's time zone is now, it could be – and has been – worse.7

The second note is about Apple's iOS 8, which was released in the middle of September 2014. Xinjiang residents who installed this software update had their devices switched to Xinjiang Time overnight. People slept in an extra two hours, were late to work, or as one Weibo user put it:

"Last night, the iPad was updated with iOS 8, and the time showed that it was after 8 o'clock. When I came back from the toilet, I found that the time on my mobile phone was more than 10 o'clock. I thought I had traveled through time."

Twice a year, I suppose we are all time travelers.


8. “We get up as early as 4 am”

India's northeastern states are another temporally peculiar place. Sometimes known as the Seven Sisters, they're connected to the rest of the country by a 12-mile strip called the Chicken's Neck.8 To a lot of people in India, they're perceived as a foreign land. Yet over 50 million people live here.

The extreme east lies within the state of Arunachal Pradesh, a mountainous and sparsely populated region bordering Myanmar. This is a land of sunrises as early as 4:07 am, with 6 pm sunsets at the latest. This part of the country is firmly in the blue, an hour behind solar time, which is a fairly severe deviation against the trend at this latitude. If it were in the United States, it would be just south of Tampa, Florida by latitude. But Tampa gets to see the sun set at 8:30 pm some days. In Arunachal Pradesh, the day is well over by then, no light in the sky. Besides Minamitorishima, no part of the world outside the tropics has a higher portion of early sunsets.

Spotlight: Gandhigram, Arunachal Pradesh

Just like in Xinjiang, this is a political issue in Arunachal Pradesh and the other northeastern states. But it's also an economic one: one study suggested that the northeast could save 2.7 billion units of electricity by advancing its time zone to UTC+6, just 30 minutes ahead and in line with neighboring Bangladesh. The region has been asking for a new time zone for over two decades now, and a big part of the rationale is that a lot of people live by solar time, not by the clock. If it's 4:30 am and the sun is out, farmers are at work. In fact, tea gardens in the northeastern state of Assam already follow an informal UTC+6:30 time zone, which is a lot closer to solar time. Also, as Arunachal Pradesh's chief minister pointed out in 2017, government offices only open at 10 am, nearly six daylight hours into the northeastern day. Forcing northeasterners to operate on the same clock as the rest of the country leads to higher electricity use, since the sun is down for a longer proportion of the time people are up.

But the Indian government has so far refused to implement a second time zone for the northeast. The practical reasons are reminiscent of why time zones were implemented in the first place: a singular time zone helps avoid air and rail accidents. The political reasons, though, are oddly similar to the Chinese government's rationale. Perhaps the northeast would be alienated from the rest of the country in a time zone of their own (in a different way than they are now, in the wrong time zone). Perhaps, as Indian intelligence agencies purportedly claim, a separate time zone could encourage extremism and separatism and divide the country. There's a history of separatism in India's northeast, but exactly how a different time zone would fuel these movements is debatable. It's clear that in both India and China, time is viewed as a national unifier and a political weapon in equal measure.

And that's why these are the forgotten lands. The extreme red and blue parts of countries like China and India are the exact sort of places you'd expect to be ignored by their governments. To the vast majority of people in these countries, the forgotten lands are an afterthought. It shows in their time zones. They're not alone in Asia: Iran and Turkey, too, have time zones that suit Tehran and Istanbul perfectly while their eastern hinterlands lie firmly in the blue. Historically, there's a correlation between a region's distance to the territorial capital and the level of conflict there. Time, it seems, is just another element of that relationship.


III. The ends of the earth

9. Fascists and siestas

A few time zone misfits have been flying under the radar. Some of them aren't on the level of the ones previously discussed, but they are ridiculous in their own right. Others are simply (technically) more off the mark than the entire rest of the world.

The top time zone deviants: selected locations

These tables document the parts of the world that have the time zone furthest away from their solar noons. When you look at the red-blue map from earlier, it's hard to tell which of these places are just wrong versus leaderboard-worthy wrong. These tables clear that up. For the most part, these are the top eight in their respective categories, using their absolute extremes. (The “Alaskan mainland” is really a placeholder for much of Alaska and northwestern Canada, an enormous region of time zone deviance.)

In the far north, it's hard to stay close to solar noon because the degrees of longitude become so tightly packed together within a single time zone, hence the appearances of Greenland and Siberia. But this table really showcases how awful UTC+8 is as a universal time zone for China: the far northeast of the country is actually just behind Minamitorishima in the early solar noon rankings, and in fact ahead of Arunachal Pradesh. This is a country whose solar noons stretch from 10:45 am to 3:11 pm. And they don't even have DST.

On the other side of things, there's a newcomer in Galicia, the region of Spain with the most wrong time zone. All of continental Spain is in the wrong time zone, and it's not particularly close, either. The westernmost point of mainland Spain is 2 hours and 43 minutes ahead of solar noon during the peak of summer, just 19 minutes better than Kashgar. The easternmost point is nearly 2 hours ahead at worst, too. Spain isn't even on the same scale as China. It can't use “unity” as a get out of jail free card, either, because the Canary Islands are in a different time zone – UTC+0, the same as Greenwich. The rest of Spain observes daylight saving time and is under UTC+1 standard time, UTC+2 summer time, despite being firmly within UTC+0 territory. So what gives?

The answer involves fascists and siestas.

In 1939, the forces of military general Francisco Franco overthrew the Spanish government, and Franco subsequently ruled Spain as dictator until 1975. When World War II broke out in Europe, Franco didn't want to formally join the Axis powers, but Spain's official policy of neutrality was essentially just pretense for Franco's support of Italy and Germany. One way in which Franco showed his support was to change Spanish clocks, previously in line with the United Kingdom, to follow the same time as Nazi Germany, one hour ahead. As a result, Spain has been in the wrong time zone since 1940.

The Nazi invasions of Western Europe are also responsible for UTC+1 taking root in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, but Spain has had a worse time of it than any other country. Other countries changed their time zones during World War II: the UK actually also jumped on the UTC+1 bandwagon to save daylight fuel during the war, and Germany itself joined the same time zone as Moscow in the summer of 1945 for some reason. But even today, Spain is in the same time zone as Hungary, 30 degrees of longitude further east.

And this delayed time zone is now a fundamental part of Spanish culture. Spain is famed for its late working hours, broken up by a long afternoon siesta. Later sunsets and later working hours mean later nighttime activity: 10 pm is a fairly common dinner time, and the Spanish sleep nearly an hour less than the average European on average. Days start at 9 am and end at midnight, even on weekdays. It's not the life of a college student: it's just Spain.

Spotlight: Muxía, Galicia

In Galicia, where UTC+1 and UTC+2 hurt most of all, people describe their region as “completely disconnected from reality.” People aren't living by the sun at all. Farms start work at a comparatively late 8:30 am because their customers aren't awake to call for orders until then and work eight hours straight to meet their delivery times. You drive south into Portugal and you have to turn your clock an hour back. But a lot of people in Spain would prefer to go with year-round DST – UTC+2 – than a reversion to UTC+1 or UTC+0. The sun is just too irresistible. As a result, the DST debate in Spain feels a lot like the debate here in the United States: pretty much everyone hates changing their clocks, but no one can agree on which change should be permanent.


10. Cast away

Not far behind Spain by solar time deviation is the Southern Cone: Chile and Argentina. Chile is (mostly) in UTC-4 and Argentina abides by UTC-3, both one hour ahead of what they should be on. Chile, though, implements Daylight Saving Time from October to March, bringing it into UTC-3 in the summer. This puts Chile's western islands, particularly the remote Juan Fernández Islands over 400 miles off the Pacific coast, nearly three hours out of whack at times. Chile's Easter Island, a lot further west, is in a similar position, located firmly within UTC-7 territory yet going by UTC-5 in the summer months.

Spotlight: Alejandro Selkirk Island 9

Now take a look at the plot below:


This plot shows a measure of the average time of solar noon by country.10 Spain is the most visible deviant, followed by France, but Chile and Argentina are certainly up there, standing out from the rest of South America. (The U.S., admittedly, is skewed by Alaska.) The vast majority of countries are ahead of solar time on average, those in Europe especially, but the contrast between countries and their neighbors are rarely more pronounced than in the Southern Cone.

In Argentina, scientists have labeled the time zone “unnatural” and claimed that reverting to UTC-4 would improve student performance. Chile tried to make things even more complicated from 2008 to 2016 by constantly moving the date of the changing of the clocks, with their original plans scuppered by earthquakes and droughts. In 2016, they even dealt with their own version of Xinjiang time, except in Santiago it was iPhone and Android users who couldn't agree on what time it was. People were Googling the time in their own cities.

But DST remains, thanks to an unending battle between saving energy and possibly reducing crime by having daylight hours more closely align with active hours on one side, and wanting kids to go to school with the sun up and limiting commuting accidents on the other. It means that in the summer months, Chile's Pacific coast and islands operate within the same time zone as Brazil's east Atlantic shoreline, over fifty degrees of longitude to the east. The irregularities continue.

And at long last, we come to Alaska.


11. "'The time has come,' the Walrus said"

We began our journey in Minamitorishima, land of the early setting sun. A place only surpassed in being behind its proper time zone by a couple of Arctic wastelands, despite being not too far from the tropics. But we must end our journey at the only place we could end it. The ends of the earth. The places on this planet over three and a half hours ahead of their solar times. The easily forgotten showcases of the Daylight Saving Time hall of fame.

First, the Aleutian Islands. If you've ever looked at the International Date Line, the imaginary line dividing today from tomorrow, you've noticed a couple deviations. Around the Equator, that's Kiribati, which insists on implementing an unprecedented UTC+14 for its eastern islands. A little weird, but it functions the same as UTC-10, so we'll let it slide. Up north, though, there's the Russian far east, crossing into the Western Hemisphere. They're in UTC+12: not bad. But just below that, stretching a thousand miles westward from the Alaskan mainland, are the Aleutian Islands, in UTC-10. They go so far west that they go east, extending to a latitude west of Auckland. They are the westernmost reaches of yesterday, but sometimes the sun waits until the very end of the day to set. This isn't Arctic territory yet: Attu Island, Alaska's westernmost point, is at 52.9° N, 172.9° E. There's no endless sun, but the sun sets as late as 11:57 pm some days (and never rises before 7 am). Time isn't supposed to work like this. Solar noon is an astonishing 3:36 pm, nearly half an hour worse than the westernmost areas of Xinjiang and nearly an hour worse than Galicia.

But our ultimate destination is not Attu.11 Attu is already noteworthy in its own right: the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942 was the first foreign invasion of the United States since the War of 1812. After all, it's the closest part of the country to Japan, not even 1,500 miles away. In fact, Attu is geographically closer to Hokkaido, one of the major Japanese islands, than it is to Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska. But no, the place with the most bizarre time zone in the world is none of these things. It's a rest area for walruses, and no one lives there. It lies, untouched, in the middle of the Bering Sea.

This is Hall Island.

Spotlight: Hall Island, Alaska

At just below 61° N, Hall Island is at about the same latitude as Helsinki or Anchorage. It's hundreds of miles south of the Arctic Circle, so it doesn't get genuine midnight sun, where the sun doesn't set. Its midnight sun is manufactured, and manufactured to a more egregious extent than anywhere else in the world. Consider that the longest day on the island is 19 hours and 7 minutes long. A proper standard time zone would yield a 2:27 am sunrise and a 9:34 pm sunset. Even if you allow for DST, that's 3:27 am and 10:34 pm. This is close to what you see in Helsinki, with a 3:54 am sunrise and 10:50 pm sunset. Helsinki gets white nights – it's twilight at midnight on the summer solstice – but no midnight sun.

Hall Island is different. On the summer solstice, the sun rises at 6 am. It sets at 1:08 am.

This is, in absolute terms, the worst time zone in the world. At the peak of summer, solar noon comes at a stunningly late 3:38 pm. On the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 11:41 am and sets at 5:21 pm. For context, the sun sets at 5:05 pm on the winter solstice in New Orleans. But this is not New Orleans. This is above the 60th parallel north. And yet there's never a sunset before 5:18 pm. Everything we know about time says you can't have the sun come up just before noon and then set at a normal time. That's not how things are supposed to work.

Of course – as with many of these places – the question is, does it matter? If the sun comes up at 11:42 am and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But consider that there are a lot of uninhabited places in the world, and none of them surpass Hall Island. That's worth something. And Hall Island's latest solar noon of 3:38 pm is only five minutes ahead of the 3:33 pm solar noon in Gambell, a village of over 600 people just over 200 miles north on St. Lawrence Island. The people of Gambell are around to see the sun come up at 12:15 pm on a day lasting 4 hours and 19 minutes. They do get somewhat normal 5:03 am early sunrises and very not normal 1:53 am late sunsets. They see it all.

12. Gambell

In working on this project, I learned so much more about time than I ever cared to know. I can only hope you feel the same way coming out of reading this.

Existentialists like to ask where time came from. When it began. 14 billion years ago, they say. But in some sense, we created it. Our 24 hours come from the ancient Egyptians, though hours back then were of different lengths. Our 60 minutes come from the Babylonians. Calendars, weeks, clocks – they all differ. But we all share the sun.

Time zones are a product of globalization, or at least a shift away from localization. At some point, there were just too many trainwrecks. We started identifying with states over cities, countries over states. We started using time as a tool, as a weapon, as a means of erasing difference. Because, as it turns out, we can just set the time to whatever we want. It's impossible to be perfect, so why not embrace the imperfections?

A perfect sunset, too, is the product of millions and millions of tiny imperfections. It feels like it's part of that small subset of human universals, appreciation of the sunset. And while the sunrise is often an afterthought now, perhaps a casualty of electrification and industrialization, those who wake up for it are enchanted by it as well. Sure, some places seem to be running away from the sunset at times, trying to squeeze in as much daylight into their waking hours as they can. But dread it, run from it, it arrives all the same. We just choose when it happens, day in, day out.

On this journey, we visited the middle of the Pacific, the dense forests of Central Africa, the windswept Galician coastline, and beyond, some of the world's most remote places and some of its most forgotten. What started as the vision of one railroad engineer turned into a global system, one each country adapted to in its own way.

And now we're at Gambell.

In October 2022, a fisherman named Maksim and a trucker named Sergei set out on a small boat from the small town of Egvekinot, in Russia's far eastern region of Chukotka. Sergei was angry. The Russian government was supposed to build roads in Chukotka, to connect the region's towns. But the money for the roads didn't seem to be going anywhere. Sergei was detained by the government in June for his protests against corruption.

And then, in September, Sergei and Maksim heard people knocking on their doors. It was officers from the Russian military, looking for conscripts to fight in Ukraine, over 4,000 miles away. That's when they knew: they had to leave.

So they did something beyond the scope of the imagination. They got on a 16-foot-long boat, and they set out across the Bering Sea.

16,500 years ago, humanity crossed the Bering land bridge, entering the Americas for the first time. Thousands of years later, this bridge was covered by the sea. It was only open ocean now, save for a few islands. Sergei and Maksim were attempting to make the same journey. They pretended to be walrus tusk salesmen to slip past the border guards. After four days, they were just twenty miles from the Alaskan coastline, when they ran into a literal cyclone. It took everything Maksim had learned as a fisherman for the two to survive.

On October 3rd, they landed in Gambell, the town with the worst time zone in the world.

The locals didn't know what to make of them. People don't do this. No one boats across the Bering Sea. But they explained that they were escaping the Russian military, that they weren't soldiers themselves. The locals welcomed them. After being taken into custody, Sergei and Maksim had to wait out three months in detention. As of the latest update, they're now in Tacoma, Washington. They made it out, after the most improbable journey.

These are the stories waiting at the ends of the earth. What should be a nondescript village on a remote island is in fact full of surprises. And I know this story has nothing to do with time zones, but what are the odds that a place that initially seemed so incidental would be the setting for a tale like this?

This was the land of the setting sun.


1. 15 times 24 is 360, thankfully!
2. Degrees of longitude are wider the closer you get to the Equator because of the curvature of the Earth. At the Equator, a degree of longitude is about 69 miles wide; at 45° N, it's about 49 miles wide; and at the North Pole, it's zero miles wide, because that's where every degree of longitude meets.
3. Within the territorial claims of a country, not over the open ocean.
4. I'm not a CS major I just like data
5. Because it was easier to calculate sunrises and sunsets by latitude and longitude, the 6.4 million points aren't actually evenly spaced out, again due to the curvature of the Earth. The maximum distance between points is about 7 miles in either direction, at the Equator.
6. Pun intended
7. According to this source, China gave up on its DST experiment partly because workers in Guangzhou complained about it enough. Just a tip for all of you DST haters.
8. Or more formally, the Siliguri Corridor.
9. Fun fact about Alejandro Selkirk Island: in 1966, Chile's president named the island after the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk, who is considered the inspiration for the novel Robinson Crusoe and was marooned on a nearby island. It used to be called “Más Afuera,” meaning “Farther Out” in Spanish, but was specifically renamed to entice tourists. Unfortunately, the events in the actual novel take place in the Caribbean, and to get to the island back in the 1960s, you had to take a three-day boat trip that was only scheduled every six weeks. It's safe to say this gambit did not work.
10. I say “a measure” because the composition of the data makes getting a true average difficult. Three main qualifiers: 1) due to the compression of longitude at higher latitudes, there are a higher proportion of points at higher latitudes in the calculation of the average; 2) the calculation was made by taking the average of the earliest sunrise and latest sunset, which is not exactly solar noon but comes close; and 3) locations with seasonal DST will have their later DST solar noon incorporated in the calculation over their standard time solar noon.
11. Quick shoutout to the Pribilof Islands (57.1° N, 170.3° W) and the town of St. Paul. Have you been wondering what the northernmost place with zero early sunsets is? This is it. This place is further north than Moscow, but their version of seasonal depression isn't 4 pm sunsets, it's 11 am sunrises. Pick your poison, I guess.

Well, that's it. Thanks for reading!

A couple final administrative things to wrap things up, then. I want to acknowledge Time and Date and Google Maps, where I got a lot of the stats in this article and the visuals in the location spotlights. Also, if you click this link you can download the entire 1.42 GB dataset I created for this project, if for whatever reason you want to play around with it. I may publish the code I used for the tables and visualizations in this article as well. We'll see. In the meantime, stay tuned for whatever my next project ends up being.