Time Zones in Greenland

It’s been awhile since I thought about Time Zones. However recently I happened to be looking at a map and I remembered the peculiarities of Greenland. I did scratch the surface of this a long time ago in Islands Split by Time Zones. Now I wanted to revisit Greenland in more detail because it offered such a strange situation. Four distinct Time Zones crossed its boundaries. Segments fell within Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)±0, UTC-1, UTC-3 and UTC-4. Strangely enough, no portion fell within UTC-2 (except during Daylight Saving Time). I found logical reasons for each one of the zones, though.

The Vast Preponderance of Greenland

A view of Nuuk from the final approach.
A view of Nuuk from the final approach. Photo by Hakim A on Flickr (cc)

Both by land and by population, the vast preponderance of Greenland observed UTC-3 (UTC-2 during Daylight Saving Time). It aligned quite nicely with another place along a similar line of longitude, eastern Brazil, which also followed UTC-3. That put Greenland three four Time Zones behind Denmark (Greenland being an autonomous entity within the Danish Realm) although the time it followed made perfect geographic sense.

Nearly everyone in Greenland lived in this Time Zone. It wasn’t all that many people however because fewer than sixty thousand people in total inhabited that entire massive island. After all, one percent of Greenland’s population once lived in a single building (since torn down) in the capital city, Nuuk. One can make all kinds of weird statistical comparison using Greenland’s tiny population.


Day 6 - Ittoqqortoormiit 70°29?N 021°5
Ittoqqortoormiit. Photo by ser_is_snarkish on Flickr (cc)

Ittoqqortoormiit (map) used to be called Scoresbysund. I’m not sure I could pronounce either name although I agreed with its redesignation. An Inuit name probably applied better than a Danish one. No wonder they changed it. However, anyone wanting to visit will need to plan well. Some call this place "the most isolated town in Greenland"

… just getting to Ittoqqortoormiit is in itself an adventure, as the town is almost as far as one can get from any other inhabited area in Greenland. The closest neighbour is the world’s largest national park with the Danish Sirius Patrol as the only human presence in a vast landscape dominated by small game, birds, polar bears, musk oxen, reindeer, walrus and 18.000 kilometers of rugged, pathless coastline.

A scant 450 people live within this isolated village, cut off from shipping channels for nine months out of the year. A couple of airline flights per week make it there, weather permitting. To top it all off, very few inhabited places on the planet experience colder temperatures. It averaged -8.6° C (16.5° F) annually.

Ittoqqortoormiit observed UTC-1 (and UTC±0 Daylight Saving Time). I figured with their remote location and frigid conditions they could observe any darn time they liked.


Danmarkshavn on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

The name Danmarkshavn meant "Denmark Harbor" in Danish. Danmarkshavn (map) offered another interesting case. It served as a weather station. Ships couldn’t sail any farther north during normal circumstances so it seemed a fine spot to place a small settlement. The station observed UTC±0 year round with no Daylight Saving Time. That didn’t impact too many people directly. Only eight researchers usually lived at Danmarkshavn at a single time.

The Danish Meteorological Institute operated the station year-round. The staff followed a regular protocol, taking surface observations every three hours and releasing a weather balloon twice a day. Some might wonder why anyone would care about weather in a remote corner of Greenland. However, it actually mattered immensely. Its importance led several European countries to band together to provide funding to keep it running, including a complete update and modernization in 2001. Weather observations made at this point accurately predicted weather that would hit northern Europe in the following days. Danmarkshavn provided vital advance notice and warning.

The Time Zone made perfect sense, even its complete lack of Daylight Saving Time, by aligning with UTC±0. It had everything to do with Europe and nothing to do with the rest of Greenland.

Thule Air Base

While Danmarkshavn aligned its observation of time to Europe, Thule (pronounced TOO-lee) Air Base focused in the other direction (map). This northernmost base of the United States Air Force observed UTC-4 (and UTC-3 during Daylight Saving Time), just one hour removed from the eastern U.S.

The base traced back to World War II. Germany occupied Denmark and the U.S. pledged to protect Denmark’s Greenland colony and prevent its capture. After WW2, another threat emerged as the world entered the Cold War. Thule offered a place to watch for Soviet missile strikes against North America. The U.S. Air Force even added a long runway for B-52 bombers that could strike deep into Soviet territory if necessary. Those bombers no longer use Thule although missile warnings, space surveillance and satellite controls remain among its active missions. Several hundred American and Danish soldiers along with their contractors still occupy the base.

Stars and Stripes recently described living conditions there. As one inhabitant said, "You either become a chunk, a drunk or a hunk." That’s because there wasn’t much to do other than eat, drink or exercise at the gym. The article also explained that,

Thule.. is a Greek word that first appears in the writings of the explorer Pytheas, from roughly 330 B.C., and the term "ultima Thule" in medieval maps denotes any distant place beyond the "borders of the known world."

That pretty well summed it up.

Good Fortuna

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.

Along the Avenue of the Giants
Along the Avenue of the Giants by Images by John 'K', on Flickr (cc)

I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.

Another Fortuna

Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?

Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.

Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.

We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.

US Time Zones via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.

The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.

But Wait, You Also Get This

Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.

Fortuna Air Force Station
Fortuna Air Force Station via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,

We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.

The station may soon become just another patch on the plains before too long, however Veterans of the 780th AC&W Radar Squadron still keep in touch.

What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.

Quad County Towns, Crowdsourced

I knew I barely scratched the surface with Quad County Towns, a collection of municipalities that sprawled across the boundaries of four different counties. Examples were surprisingly difficult to find. I turned it over to the Twelve Mile Circle audience who quickly doubled my feeble efforts by appending comments. I hadn’t planned on writing a sequel, however, the crowdsourced contributions warranted further research, mapping and recognition.

Barrington Hills, Illinois

View Quad County Towns in a larger map

Reader "MWD" offered Barrington Hills in Illinois. The village included territory in Cook, Lake, McHenry and Kane Counties. It also had a fascinating history, begun as a weekend getaway for wealthy Chicagoans who retreated to rural estates for genteel activities such as fox hunting across the open spaces and hobnobbing at the local Country Club. Chicago’s population continued marching westward for the first half of the Twentieth Century so Barrington Hills’ residents formed a village to block encroaching suburbanization. It remains an equestrian community that protects its rural character by strictly enforcing 5-acre minimum zoning.

Kansas City, Missouri

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Kansas City, MO seemed obvious once "KCJeff" pointed it out. The city, which is completely independent of its counterpart with the same name on the other side of the state line, crossed into Jackson, Cass, Clay and Platte counties. Kansas City included land rather convincingly within each of the counties except Cass.

I drilled-down into Kansas City’s minor incursion into Cass County and noticed an airport runway. The boundary jogged around the southern edge of the runway. A little sleuthing uncovered this as part of the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base that was shut in 1994 due to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) effort. Apparently Kansas City wanted the entirety of the Air Force Base within its boundaries. Annexing a tiny territory in Cass County was the only way to accomplish that. Today the former base is used for a variety of public and private purposes.

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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"John Deeth" mentioned Oklahoma City’s borders extending into Oklahoma, Canadian, Cleveland, and Pottawatomie counties. I’ve always loved this location because the state is Oklahoma, the county is Oklahoma and the city is Oklahoma. However I need to amend that now, to recognize that there are parts of Oklahoma City that do not conform to the mantra, those parts in Canadian, Cleveland, and Pottawatomie.

View Larger Map

Only the tiniest sliver of Oklahoma City crossed into Pottawatomie County. The Google Street View car burrowed deep into the Pottawatomie nob, revealing the rustic image reproduced above. This is Oklahoma City? Indeed it is. I’ve examined the nob extensively in satellite mode and I cannot determine any intuitive reason for the city to annex this particular plot. Nothing seemed to distinguish it from any of the surrounding terrain.

Bellevue, Ohio

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I have bad news for "Greg" — I don’t think that Bellevue, Ohio crossed into Seneca County. We should count this as a near-miss. In all fairness to Greg, he acknowledged that as a distinct possibility. I tried to corroborate the assertion made in Wikipedia ("a city in Erie, Huron, Sandusky and Seneca counties") and could not find any evidence to support Seneca. Even the street map on the City of Bellevue website stopped directly on the Seneca County line but it did not cross it.

I believe the burden of proof is on Wikipedia to cite a proper reference for the four counties claim. There are many organizations and businesses in the area that are called "four county" this-and-that, and the Bellevue Public Library‘s district "is a rarity in Ohio with borders in four counties." Perhaps that’s how the confusion arose, or maybe there was a recent annexation not yet included on the city’s maps. I couldn’t find it.

I’d enjoy adding one more location to the quad towns list so I hope someone can prove me wrong, or at least update Wikipedia if the evidence isn’t forthcoming. Several Wikipedians subscribe to 12MC. Maybe someone can fix that.

Honorable Mentions

"Greg" also mentioned New York City, as did Ariel Dybner. The famous five boroughs are also counties: Brooklyn; Manhattan; Queens, Staten Island and The Bronx. I almost included NYC on the earlier article. It hit the cutting-room floor due to time and space constraints.

New York City is a wonderful anomaly however the counties are effectively non-functional. I talked about this in one of the earliest 12MC articles, Smallest County in the USA, Part 2. An 1898 city-consolidation created a unified New York City under a unique arrangement sometimes described as sui generis ("one that is of its own kind"). The minor, residual county governance that remained after consolidation was undone by a 1989 United States Supreme Court decision, Board of Estimate of City of New York v. Morris. NYC is a case of the tail wagging to the dog until the tail actually became the dog. I do believe it’s unique and therefore it doesn’t quite fit the category.

Then "Mike Lowe" offered the peculiar history of Broomfield, Colorado. Today it’s a combined city-county, however it was split between Adams, Boulder, Jefferson and Weld Counties until 2001. Broomfield is both one of the smallest and one of the newest counties in the United States. The City and County of Broomfield said:

To help alleviate the problems and confusion in accessing services with the City of Broomfield being the only city in the state to lie in portions of four counties, residents sought relief in a constitutional amendment creating a City and County of Broomfield.

In other words, Broomfield set itself up as a separate county specifically because it was tired of dealing with the peculiarities of sprawling across the boundaries of four separate counties.

Thank you everyone for the contributions!