How in the World Do You Tell Time in Antarctica?

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You’d think telling time in Antarctica would be a simple matter of looking at your watch, but even something as basic as using a watch to check the time isn’t a straightforward matter when you're that far south. If staying alive in arctic conditions with limited supplies isn’t already hard enough, the extreme latitude coupled with perpetual daylight in the summer and darkness in the winter means that people in Antarctica aren’t even sure what time it is! So, is there any real way for travelers to tell time in Antarctica?

Time Zones

Clocks on wall with time zones
Credit: luiscortestamez/ Unsplash

If every country in the world were allowed to keep their own local time, telling time would be chaotic. To solve the problem, Sir Sandford Fleming from Canada figured out that if the world were divided into 24 vertical pieces— one for each hour of the day — and offset the time in each zone by one hour, they could bring some order to the chaos. Thus, time zones were invented. One time zone is equivalent to about 15 degrees of longitude. It’s a great system for most of us, but it suffers from one serious drawback that makes it useless for telling time in Antarctica.

No Longitude at the South Pole

Group of penguins congregate in group on a snowy shore in Antarctica
Credit: Volodymyr Goinyk/ Shutterstock

Time zones work wonderfully for every continent in the world, but not at both poles. The closer you get to them, the closer together the longitude lines become until they eventually become a single point on each extreme of the globe. The longitude lines (and time zones) are so close together in Antarctica that it doesn’t even make sense to follow them. This presents a unique challenge for people in Antarctica because they aren’t beholden to the traditional time zone structure that the rest of the world takes for granted. The same is true for the Arctic except that the Arctic is not a continent. It’s all ice with no land. However, there are countries within the Arctic Circle and they follow their own time zones.

Sunlight

Sunlight over Antarctica
Credit: noaa/ Unsplash

If you don’t know what time zone you’re in while in Antarctica, you would be able to tell the time from the sun, right? In most places, that’s true. When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, you can assume it’s about noon. However, nothing in Antarctica is as it seems! Due to its extreme southern location, Antarctica experiences 24 hours of sunlight in the summer and 24 hours of darkness in the winter. This means that even your sundial won’t work for telling time! If you used the sun for timekeeping, every day would be six months long.

What Time Is It?

Aerial view of Antarctica
Credit: mattpalmerDownload/ Unsplash

Officially, the South Pole follows Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), but it’s not always observed. If you dressed warmly enough, you could walk through every time zone on Earth in a matter of seconds, so it doesn’t make sense to force everyone to follow GMT. Without time zones or sunlight to tell time, people in Antarctica get to make up their own rules. They simply set watches to whichever time zone they like best. Since most people in Antarctica are researchers, they typically set clocks to those of their home base. Others choose to set their clocks to the nearest land mass.

Palmer research station, for example, is located on the northern tip of Antarctica closest to Chile, so they follow Chilean Summer Time. Troll Station in central Antarctica, however, switches between Greenwich Mean Time and Central European Time, which are two hours apart twice per year. There’s no exact method of timekeeping in Antarctica. Whatever time you want it to be is what time it is!

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