Are Time Zones a Problem for Flat Earth?
When people first hear about the flat-earth movement, one of the initial objections they think of is that time zones don’t work on a flat earth. With ancient flat-earth cosmologies, time zones indeed would have been a problem. These cosmologies pictured the earth as a disk with the sun, moon, and stars revolving around the earth, first over and then under the disk. Consequently, sunrise would occur simultaneously throughout the world, as would noon and sunset. We reckon time by the sun’s position in the sky, so in such cosmologies, the entire earth would experience the same time. Lacking rapid travel and communication, people in the ancient world generally were not aware of this problem for a flat earth.
By the time Samuel Rowbotham reintroduced the flat earth in the nineteenth century, it was well-known that the entire earth did not experience the same time. Long-distance communication available then, such as the telegraph and the telephone, would have made this obvious to anyone who used such modern communication devices over long distances. Furthermore, anyone could carry a pocket watch on a long-distance train trip to see that noon did not occur simultaneously across a continent, with the implication that time of day varied around the world.
In Rowbotham’s view, a location experienced daylight only when the sun was near that location.
This reality made it difficult for Rowbotham to convince others that the earth is flat, so he invented his zetetic model, with the sun acting as a sort of spotlight moving in a circle above the flat earth. In Rowbotham’s view, a location experienced daylight only when the sun was near that location. Night occurred when the sun was above the earth’s disk opposite from one’s location. In the zetetic model, the sun is always above the earth, so sunset and sunrise are not possible. Explanation of sunrise and sunset (among other things) requires additional add-ons that I have discussed elsewhere. With this questionable fix, the entire flat earth would not experience the same time simultaneously, so I and other critics of flat earth who are well-read on the modern flat-earth movement do not use this argument.
Why Do We Have Time Zones?
Until rather late in the nineteenth century, people didn’t worry much about the time of day being different around the world. For instance, in the 1840s, American pioneers began to trek in wagon trains from Missouri to the newly acquired West Coast. That trip represented two hours in time difference, but with the required six-month transit, that two hours was not noticeable. Ship travel between continents typically took weeks, so a few hours’ difference in time between the origin and the destination didn’t matter either. Consequently, every town had its own time standard.
With the completion of the US Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, followed by the linking of many cities and towns into a rail network, a problem with time differences between railroad stops arose. With every stop observing its own local time, it was impossible to adopt consistent train schedules. To solve this problem, in 1883 the railroads of the United States and Canada adopted standard time. This solution was built upon the practice the British had adopted a few years earlier. The UK had already encountered this problem with its train schedules and had solved it by placing all the UK on the same time, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Since the UK does not have a great east-west extent, the entire nation could maintain the same time, but this was not feasible in the much larger US and Canada.
Standard time consists of time zones in which all locations within a time zone observe the local time on a standard meridian of longitude. GMT is the time zone based upon the Prime Meridian, which passes through Greenwich. Ideally, time zones are at one-hour increments. Since 360 degrees divided by 24 hours is 15 degrees/hour, there should be 24 time zones around the world, each keeping the local time of standard meridians that were at multiples of 15 degrees of longitude. There are four time zones in the lower 48 states of the United States—Eastern Standard Time (EST), Central Standard Time (CST), Mountain Standard Time (MST), and Pacific Standard Time (PST). EST is based on the 75th west meridian, CST is based on the 90th west meridian, MST is based on the 105th west meridian, and PST is based on the 120th west meridian.
The mean local time in Greenwich is maintained as the time standard and is called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Technically, GMT and UTC are not the same thing—GMT is a time zone, and UTC is the universally agreed-upon time standard for all time zones. For instance, time zones are often expressed as the offset from UTC. Using this convention, EST = UTC – 5:00, while GMT = UTC + 0:00. Why the distinction between GMT and UTC? Many locations observe daylight saving time (DST) part of the year, with different dates of DST in different countries. Even the UK goes on DST (British Summer Time = BST), which is UTC + 1:00, but UTC does not change during the summer. If time zones around the world were expressed in terms of GMT rather than UTC, then there would be some confusion about which time in Greenwich is intended. For our purposes here, we shall avoid the complication of DST.
The Situation Gets More Complicated
So far, I have described the ideal case of time zones being 15 degrees wide and centered on standard meridians. For instance, the EST zone is based on longitude 75 degrees west and so ought to extend between 67 1/2 degrees west and 82 1/2 degrees west longitude, but how practical is this? Consider Asheville, North Carolina. Longitude 82 1/2 degrees passes about three miles east of downtown Asheville. Thus, downtown Asheville ought to be in the CST zone. But strict observance of that time zone border would leave the eastern part of Asheville in the EST zone. That would be inconvenient for people commuting across the border between the two time zones, such as people going to work, shop, or school. It would make commerce difficult, with businesses in the two time zones observing different hours of operation. Even worse, some homes and businesses straddle the boundary between the idealized EST and CST time zones, with an hour time difference between the east and west ends of these structures. Obviously, that is not practical. The best solution is to shift the time zone borders to places with relatively low population density so that the fewest number of people are inconvenienced by a one-hour time difference a short distance away. Since most of North Carolina observes EST, it is advantageous for all of North Carolina to be in the EST zone, so Asheville is in the EST zone.
Since Tennessee is west of North Carolina, Tennessee is in the CST zone, right? Wrong. There aren’t many people living along the Tennessee-North Carolina line, so a time zone boundary there would not be much of a problem. However, farther north, Tennessee and Virginia share a border, with Virginia to the north and Tennessee to the south. Most of Virginia ought to be in the EST zone, and so the entire state observes EST, though extreme western Virginia is slightly west of the idealized 82 1/2 degree west longitude boundary between the EST and CST zones. Bristol, Virginia, is just east of that idealized boundary, as is Bristol, Tennessee. The two cities are separated by State Street. Since the two cities of Bristol are in different states with different laws, it is impossible to have a unified city government, which is why these are legally two separate cities, even though they function as one city commercially and in the minds of residents. It isn’t practical for those two cities to be in different time zones, so “combined Bristol” is in the EST zone. Nearby Johnson City, Tennessee, is also east of the idealized boundary between the two time zones. However, the third city in this tri-city region is Kingsport, Tennessee, which lies just west of that boundary. Again, it isn’t practical for Kingsport to be in a different time zone from the rest of the Tri-Cities, so it observes EST as well.
Tennessee spans about 400 miles in the east-west direction, with most of the state placed well into the CST zone, so it makes sense for much of that state to observe CST. But where should the boundary between EST and CST be in Tennessee? In the United States, the boundaries between time zones generally reflect the wishes of the people. Apparently, the people in the eastern third of Tennessee prefer to be in the EST zone. Similarly, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, eastern Kentucky, Georgia, and the eastern half of the Florida panhandle are in the EST zone when they ought to be in the CST zone. Most of those locations originally were in the CST zone, but over the years, legislation has moved the boundary progressively westward. Part of the reason was the rise of the broadcast industry in the twentieth century, with attempts to get as many people into the EST zone as possible. Economic integration with the EST zone is another reason. But another factor was the desire for many people to have more daylight late in the day, a sort of year-round DST before DST was a thing.
A case in point is Kentucky. When I was young, Kentucky was in the CST zone. Only a tiny portion of Kentucky is east of the idealized 82 1/2 degree west longitude boundary between the EST and CST zone, so it makes sense for all of Kentucky to be in the CST zone. However, I suspect that the seven counties that comprise Northern Kentucky (where the Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter are located) switched to EST when Ohio did years before I was born. In the 1960s, the rest of eastern Kentucky switched to EST. Two decades ago, Wayne County, Kentucky, switched from CST to EST, citing many of the reasons I mentioned above. Around the world, the boundaries of time zones have been gerrymandered far from their idealized boundaries.
In much of the world, the desires of the people to be in time zones of their choice become political realities, so governments have tended to respond to these demands by adjusting the boundaries of time zones. But sometimes it is government acting to suit its own purposes without input from the people. An example of this is China. China extends far enough east to west to have four time zones as the US has, yet the entire country is in one time zone, the one based in Beijing (UTC + 8:00), in the eastern part of China. In late March, the sun rises around 6:00 a.m. and sets around 6:00 p.m. in parts of eastern China. Meanwhile, in parts of western China, the sun rises around 9:00 a.m. and sets around 9:00 p.m., with local noon occurring at 3:00 p.m.
This gerrymandering of time zones goes on all around the world, but it gets even worse. Some countries have decided to have some time zones off from adjacent time zones by 30 minutes or 15 and 45 minutes. Some islands in the Pacific are east of the International Date Line (IDL) and observe the proper standard time, but they observe the day west of the IDL. Are you confused yet? Don’t worry—many flat-earthers are more confused than you.
Flat Out Confusion
I suppose that flat-earthers have long chafed under the claim of some of their critics that time zones can’t happen on a flat earth, so naturally they are motivated to reverse the claim, saying that time zones don’t work on a globe earth—even if that is not the case. I’ve observed that this sort of zeal causes flat-earthers not to investigate and critique their own claims properly. This argument about time zones was started by a French Canadian flat-earther who recently presented his arguments in a YouTube video, and other flat-earthers quickly and uncritically adopted his claims.
One of the arguments used in this video is that the east-west dimension of Australia is nearly as great as the lower 48 states of the US, yet Australia supposedly has only two time zones as opposed to the four time zones in the US. To flat-earthers, this suggests that something is amiss. There is something amiss, but only in the minds of flat-earthers. If Australia has only two time zones, then the difference in time between the east and west coasts of Australia would be one hour. That would be news to most Australians since they know the time difference between Sydney and Perth is two hours (requiring three time zones). The problem is that the French-Canadian flat-earther who made the original video about time zones used a time zone map that erroneously had the east and west coast time zones of Australia only an hour apart . That map didn’t use the convention of expressing time zones in terms of UTC. Rather, it showed time zones in terms of increasing from the IDL. Therefore, it had Western Australia as 20 hours (corresponding to UTC + 8:00), and it had the eastern states of Australia as 21 hours. The latter ought to be 22 hours (corresponding to UTC + 10:00). Virtually all other time zone maps show this two-hour time difference, so the flat-earther who made this video either poorly or intentionally chose this faulty time zone map. This information is not difficult to check, but flat-earthers aren’t very good at spotting errors in one another’s arguments. Since Australia is not quite as wide east to west as the US, having three times zones is appropriate, and there is no problem.
Australia’s third time zone is a bit odd. Between Western Australia and the eastern states of Australia are South Australia and the Northern Territory. Much of this central part of Australia ought to be in the UTC – 9:00 time zone, but it is in the UTC – 9:30 zone. That is, the time zone in central Australia is 30 minutes off from Sydney and 90 minutes off from Perth. This half-hour time zone serves as the third time zone for Australia, again showing that Australia has three time zones. Why the half-hour time zone? I don’t know. It may be to more properly reflect the local time, tempered with a desire to be closer in time to the eastern part of Australia, which has much of Australia’s population. The flat-earth video maker mentioned this odd time zone, but on his map, it was a half hour off from Sydney and Perth.
Flat-earthers see much more difficulty in the northern hemisphere, with many supposedly missing time zones. For instance, they noticed that in Siberia the UTC + 7:00 time zone is adjacent to the UTC + 9:00 time zone, prompting the question of what happened to the UTC + 8:00 time zone. If they bothered to look a little south, they would have seen it in China, Mongolia, and parts of Russia contiguous with Mongolia and China. Why is the time zone missing farther north in Siberia? I don’t know, but it probably has to do with administering a huge amount of land with very few people. By the way, the flat-earther in the video seemed to have overlooked the “missing” UTC + 4:00 time zone between Russia west of the Ural Mountains (UTC + 3:00) and east of the Urals (UTC + 5:00). That time zone isn’t missing either because it exists in the Caucuses Mountains and portions of Russia north of the Caspian Sea—it just doesn’t extend to the far north. I suspect that it doesn’t affect too many people because few people live along the divide between these two time zones that differ by two hours.
The largest discrepancy in time zones that flat-earthers claim to see is the three hours “missing” across the Bering Strait between Alaska and Siberia. On the map they used, flat-earthers see 24 hours (zero hours) on the western side of the Bering Strait and 3 hours on the eastern side of the Bering Strait, and they reason that the difference of three hours and zero hours is three hours. But what time zones are missing? Those missing time zones would be the 1-hour and the 2-hour time zones, for a total of two time zones, not three. This is a basic counting problem: there are four time zones across the lower 48 states, but that produces a time difference of three hours, not four hours. Again, this is a relatively easy error to spot, but flat-earthers so uncritically accept the claims of fellow flat-earthers that they miss these sorts of basic mistakes. The flat-earth video maker who originated this idea introduced the three “missing” time zones early in his video, though later in the video he said that there were two missing time zones across the Bering Strait.
Still, what happened to those other two time zones? They were gerrymandered away in 1983. Alaska spans 57 degrees longitude, from 130 degrees west to 173 degrees east. This would justify four Alaskan time zones, though most of Alaska is in a single time zone. Originally, Alaska had more time zones, but that changed in 1983 to place most of Alaska into one time zone. Alaska Standard Time (AKST) is UTC – 9:00, based upon the 135th meridian, which is within a degree of the longitude of Juneau, the state capital. Juneau is in the extreme eastern part of Alaska, but Alaska’s two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, are much farther west, near the 150th meridian and so ought to be in the UTC – 10:00 time zone. Why are they not in their proper time zone? Prior to 1983, they may have been, but it probably was switched to match the time in Juneau and to be closer in time to most of the US.
Nome is far to the west, near the Bering Strait. Its longitude is 165 degrees, which means its local time is UTC – 11:00. This was the Bering Standard Time (BST) zone, but in 1983 Nome and the rest of mainland Alaska switched to AKST, eliminating BST. This shift resulted in standard time in Nome being off from local time by two hours, meaning that the sun is highest in the sky at 2:00 p.m., not noon. Therefore, there are not two missing time zones—rather, the boundary of the AKST time zone has been shifted westward, eliminating the two “missing” time zones in Alaska.
By the way, many of the Aleutian Islands are west of 180 degrees longitude, but the IDL has been shifted westward around the Aleutians to allow the sparsely populated islands to be on the same day as the rest of the US. The Aleutian Islands west of 169 1/2 degrees west longitude are in the Hawaii-Aleutian (HST) time zone (UTC – 10:00). This accounts for one of the “missing” time zones, but that time zone seems to have escaped flat-earthers’ notice.
Many such games are played with time zones in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. Kiribati, Samoa, and Tonga are east of 180th meridian (or straddle it in the case of Kiribati), but the IDL was shifted eastward so that they are a day ahead of islands to the north and south, even though they may be in the same time zones otherwise.
Confused by the gerrymandering of time zone boundaries, flat-earthers see problems where none exist.
I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Confused by the gerrymandering of time zone boundaries, flat-earthers see problems where none exist. They also count the many half-hour, 15-minute, and 45-minute time zones south of the high northern latitudes to argue that there are far more added time zones in the southern part of the earth. The flat-earthers making this argument claim that the “missing” time zones near the Arctic and the many more time zones to the south are evidence that the earth’s true flat shape does not conform to a globe. They seem to think that this amounts to evidence that there is missing land in the north and additional land in the south that the globe earth can’t account for but must be there on a flat earth. Flat-earthers making this claim never explain why these supposedly missing time zones aren’t a problem on a flat earth or how realizing the earth is flat would somehow eliminate the problem.
There are no missing or additional time zones because there are still 24 hours going around the earth. Shifting boundaries, thus eliminating some time zones, as in Alaska, doesn’t change the fact that there are 24 hours around the world. Nor does the splitting of time zones into quarter- and half-hour time zones farther south change the fact that there are 24 hours around the world. The argument some flat-earthers are now making with time zones is very easy to debunk, but I doubt that it will make much difference as this new flat-earth argument makes its rounds among flat-earthers.
Any flat-earthers who find this blog and read parts of it likely will complain that I have given a very complicated answer. Many situations are often more complicated than they first appear. The problem is that flat-earthers look for simple answers, so they tend to reject more complicated answers out of hand.