Why Don't the North and South Poles Have Time Zones?

By: Mark Mancini  | 

twisted clock face
Time really has no meaning on the North or South poles. But why? DigiPub/Getty Images

Time zones are headache fuel. Rapidly moving between them is a good way to screw up your sleep schedule; ask anyone who's traveled overseas on business.

They've also got political quirks here and there. The continental United States is split into four recognized time zones. Yet China — which is around the same size — has just one. Still, that's not to say the layout of Earth's time zones is totally random.

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By international custom, our planet is divided into a series of longitudinal lines that run from the North Pole ("Hi, Santa!") all the way down to the South Pole. These form convenient boundaries for 24 widely-used time zones.

Longitude Lines Converge at the Poles

But what does that mean for Earth's poles, the two points at which all longitude lines converge? If you're physically standing at the South Pole, or chilling at its northern counterpart, then what's the local time? Before answering that question, we should clarify something. When people mention the North Pole, they're usually talking about the geographic one.

The geographic north pole and the South Pole are very special places. Because they mark the twin spots where A) Earth's outer surface intersects with its axis of rotation and B) the world's longitudinal lines overlap.

Earth also contains a magnetic north pole. Situated in the Arctic, it's currently about 248 miles (400 kilometers) south of the geographic north pole — although it drifts around a lot.

Compasses point toward the magnetic north pole, but that spot has nothing to do with longitude lines. Which brings us back to the time zone issue.

Besides Santa Claus and his gang, nobody lives at the geographic north pole. Why would they? It's located in the Arctic Ocean.

Ships passing through these waters can pick their own time zone. Sometimes, vessels sync themselves up with the time zone observed in a given country or city farther south (e.g., Moscow). In March 2020, Scientific American reported on a North Pole expedition whose crew members "changed" their time zone of choice once a week.

Things are a little different in Antarctica. The South Pole lies above solid ground and so do the continent's many research stations. Each one sticks to a predesignated time zone from some other corner of the globe. For example, the McMurdo Research Station — the largest of all the research stations in Antarctica — follows New Zealand Standard Time (and recognizes that country's daylight saving time).

So does the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. A permanent research settlement that's been occupied since 1956, it's well within sight of the literal South Pole.

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