When the sun sets on the evening of December 31 this year, and the world awaits the arrival of the new year, a tiny island country on the extreme east will already have begun celebrations. Located just to the west of the International Date Line, the Republic of Kiribati is one of the first places on earth to see the first rays of the rising sun. Their time zone is 14 hours ahead of UTC - the farthest forward time zone in the world.
The Republic of Kiribati consist of 33 atolls and low coral islands in the central Pacific Ocean dispersed over 3.5 million square kilometres of water. The nation comprises of three island groups - Gilbert Islands, Phoenix Islands, and Line Islands, the last of which are located as far as 30° east of the 180° longitude line. Geographically, Line Islands lie directly to the south of the U.S. islands of Hawaii, and should logically be in the same time zone. But this is not the case, because the International Date Line is not a straight line but zigzags around quite a bit and over the years has been shoved and shifted for various political and economic reasons.
The Island of Kirimati, part of the Republic of Kiribati, is one of the few inhabited islands to experience the arrival of the new year before anybody else. Photo credit
Take Kiribati itself, for example. Prior to 1995, Kiribati straddled the International Date Line with the eastern and western islands groups having a time difference of 24 hours. This was viewed as an annoying economic nuisance, as there were only four days in each week when both sides experienced weekdays simultaneously, and these were the only days when government offices on opposite sides of the line could conduct business. To put an end to this situation, the president of Kiribati at that time announced that on 1 January 1995 the International Date Line would henceforth move eastwards to go around this country. In doing so, Kiribati became the first nation to greet the rays of the rising sun at the begin of the third millennium. To celebrate the occasion, they even renamed Caroline Island to Millennium Island in the year 2000.
The bending of the International Date Line also created a new time zone UTC+14 that didn’t exist until then. The new development meant that some places were pushed as far as 26 hours behind, or more than a day.
The crooked International Date Line. See how it goes out of the way to wrap around Line Islands. Click here to see the uncropped version.
Taking a cue from Kiribati, another island territory – Tonga, advanced their standard times to UTC+14 and therefore celebrates new year at the same time as the Line Islands in Kiribati. Changes to the date line occurred as recently as 29 December 2011 when yet another island – Samoa moved the international date line to the other side of the country and advanced the country from UTC−11 to UTC+13. Following Samoa’s decision, Tokelau also advanced its standard time from UTC−11 to UTC+13.
Although a nation is authorized to modify their respective time zones, many countries and organizations do not recognize the change. The International Date Line is established by international agreement and there are no treaties or formal agreements associated with the line. Countries are free to choose whatever time zone they wish to observe. This has caused many date line disputes among a handful of island nations each claiming to be the first to celebrate a new year. Then there is the question of whether uninhabited islands count, or whether or not locations within the same time zone but slightly more eastern than the others actually can claim to celebrate the holiday first.
According to the current accepted time zones, the first place to welcome the new year is Kiribati, followed by Tonga. Western Samoa, and Tokelau, follows an hour late.
The New Zealand territory of Chatham Islands and the Republic of Fiji follow close behind. The first major city is Auckland, New Zealand, and the last place to celebrate the arrival of the new year is the uninhabited Baker Island and Howland Island, both belonging to the United States.
Correction: Fiji and New Zealand, including the Chatham Islands, has Daylight Saving Time during the Southern Hemisphere Summer, which is around New Year. During this time their time zone advances to UTC+13, except for the Chatham Islands which goes even further to UTC+13.75. This makes New Zealand among the first places in the world to celebrate the New Year - just behind Kiribati's Line Islands. (Thanks Ross).
Satellite photo of Caroline Island, whose name was changed to Millennium Island in 2000 to celebrate the new millennium. Photo credit
Satellite picture of Atafu Atoll, an inhabited island belonging to Tokelau, that lies in the time zone UTC+13. Photo credit
American Samoa, the last place on earth to see the new year. Photo credit
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