What Time Is It In Antarctica? Time Zones & Time Travel At The South Pole

January 3rd, 2024
5 min read
Timezones are tricky concepts in Antarctica

What time is it in Antarctica? Does Antarctica have time zones in the first place? And—just to get 100% more “out there”—was a parallel universe where time runs in reverse discovered near the South Pole?

All good questions. Let’s tackle the temporal at the bottom of the world!

The 24 standard time zones that divvy up the planet are arrayed longitudinally, but do not adhere to those meridians precisely by any means, having been set for political and practical purposes.

These time zones are defined by their offset, positive or negative, from Coordinated Universal Time (abbreviated as UTC), the time standard that encompasses the prime meridian through Greenwich. That offset’s generally an hourly one: UTC+4 meaning local time’s four hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time, for example, and UTC-4 meaning it’s four hours behind. Some countries, though, such as Australia and India, do define certain time zones by smaller sub-hourly increments.

While their latitudinal boundaries are irregular, the north-south arrangement of time zones means that, like the lines of longitude, they converge toward the poles. Technically speaking, that means that Antarctica falls within all time zones.

But that’s not how time zones are observed in the White Continent, and that’s not altogether surprising. You won’t find clocks, let alone people, in the vast majority of Antarctica, so the usefulness of time zones is somewhat limited.

All the more so because most of this polar realm falls south of the Antarctic Circle, with seasons swinging between roughly 24 hours of daylight in the austral summer and 24 hours of darkness in the austral winter. That sort of extreme variation in daylength also makes for a timekeeping environment different from most of the rest of the world, only elsewhere observed up around the North Pole.

Finally, by international agreement, no part of Antarctica is owned or controlled by an individual nation or other sovereign power—yet another reason why the application of a time zone (or time zones) here isn’t clear-cut.

Rather than 24 narrowing time-zone wedges all coming together exactly at the point of the Geographic South Pole, Antarctica encompasses an uneven patchwork of different time zones determined by various aspects of its unusual human geography.

The Antarctic Treaty acknowledges eight territorial claims in Antarctica made by seven countries prior to the adoption of the Treaty, which together cover more than 80 percent of the continent. (These claims aren’t internationally recognized and don’t confer any ownership or special rights to the claimants; you can learn more about them here.) So some of the time zones mapped in Antarctica correspond to time zones used in claimant countries: for example, Norway, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Argentina.

But the places in Antarctica where time zones actually have relevance are mainly restricted to research stations and associated seasonal camps, and numerous such outposts falling within particular territorial claims are owned and operated by nations other than the pertinent claimant countries.

For convenience, research stations tend to ascribe to the time zones of the country that operates them or of the country through which they are supplied. (Daylight Saving Time observance also varies accordingly.)

The U.K.’s Halley VI Research Station, for example, which is set on the Brunt Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea, follows Britain’s Greenwich Mean Time/UTC+00:00 and British Summer Time/UTC+01:00. Two permanent U.S. Antarctic stations, McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, observe New Zealand time, because their nearest supply base is in that country; the U.S.-owned Palmer Station follows the time used in Chile for the same reason.

For reference, here are the time zones followed in a few other notable research stations in Antarctica:

  • Mawson Station (Australia): UTC+5
  • Orcadas Base (Argentina): UTC-3
  • Concordia Station (France/Italy): UTC+8
  • Vostok Station (Russia): UTC+5
  • SANAE IV (South Africa): UTC+2

Cruise operators bringing tourists to Antarctica typically operate on the time zone of their departure port. So on the most-used Antarctica travel itinerary—ship-based cruises embarking from South America and visiting the Antarctic Peninsula—the time zone of Ushuaia, Argentina (Argentina Standard Time/UTC-3) is the point of reference.

In terms of other common, sub-Antarctic destinations on such cruises, the Falkland Islands follow the official Falkland Islands Standard Time (UTC-3) year-round, while South Georgia Time (UST-2) prevails, year-round as well, in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.

Time zones aren’t perhaps the most riveting topic (important as they are to the logistics of daily life). Time travel—well, that’s another matter. And a few years back, some wild speculation got swirling due to some mysterious readings collected during the ANtarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA) experiment.

The ANITA project aimed to detect ultra-high-energy neutrinos (one of the elemental particles) associated with so-called cosmic rays and Cosmic Microwave Background radiation produced by the Big Bang. During the experiment, in 2016 and 2018, a radio-antenna array on a high-altitude helium balloon registered pulses projecting upward from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, not downward from space.

Among the more left-field interpretations of this unexplained observation was that it stemmed from up-going neutrinos traveling in the opposite direction of “normal” neutrinos and therefore sourced from a parallel universe, created concurrently with ours by the Big Bang, where (as the New York Post breathlessly put in May 2020) “time runs backward.”

The exact cause of the pulses detected by ANITA hasn’t been determined, but an Annals of Glaciology paper published in 2020 suggested far more plausible explanations, namely that they were caused by reflections of incoming cosmic rays off firn (highly compacted, very dense snow partway to turning into ice), subglacial lakes, or other subsurface features buried under the upper ice of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

So, time may not unspool backward around the South Pole. There’s no question, however, that the Midnight Sun of the austral summer, let alone the around-the-clock darkness of the depths of the southern winter, lends a kind of “timeless” vibe to the White Continent!

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