Time Zones in Greenland

On January 26, 2017 · 8 Comments

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.


Ittoqqortoormiit


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"
ame

… 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


Danmarkshavn
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.

On January 26, 2017 · 8 Comments

8 Responses to “Time Zones in Greenland”

  1. Joe says:

    I’d just like to add/clarify that the choice of 0 UTC for the location of the weather station was likely also driven by weather standardization. Even here in the United States, the National Weather Service operates primarily in 0 UTC (also known as military or Zulu time). Thus if there is any justification to operate the entire area in 0 UTC vs -1 or -2, then I’m sure they would push for 0 to not have to do any adjustments between “civilian” time and “military” or “weather” time.

  2. Rhodent says:

    “[T]he vast preponderance of Greenland observed UTC-3 (UTC-2 during Daylight Saving Time). […] That put Greenland three Time Zones behind Denmark”

    Shouldn’t that be four time zones behind Denmark? Denmark, like most European countries, is in UTC+1.

  3. Scott Surgent says:

    The UTC-1 covers very little land… according to Wikipedia, just eastern Greenland, the Azores and Cape Verde “use” this time zone.

    I recall the 1999-2000 New Year’s celebrations. Given the significance of the year 2000, one of the television stations would show celebrations at the top of every hour as a new time zone hit midnight. But for this one, they had nothing. They did mention Ittoqqortoormiit, perhaps the only time that little town will ever make international news. There was no footage of any celebrations in the town, unfortunately.

  4. Greg says:

    If you don’t read xkcd, you should check out Wednesday’s (https://xkcd.com/1799/): A humorously useless map projection based on the time zone(s) each country is in. It prominently features the Greenland weirdness and makes me wonder if the artist reads your blog.

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