Alaska Standard Time is nine hours behind the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC-9); during the daylight saving time, the offset is eight hours from UTC. However, the entire territory of Alaska easily spans over five time zones – as many as the contiguous United States – and a large portion of the state actually falls under the UTC-10 an UTC-11 time zone rather than the Alaska Standard Time. In fact, Cape Wrangell should technically fall into UTC-13 as the sun sets at midnight here, and Adak time is more towards UTC-12 – not the UTC-9 of the Alaska Standard Time. To add to the confusion, the Alaska Standard Time is the same as Hawaiian time…
How does that work, and what is UTC in the first place?
Let’s take a look: if you work or communicate with people living in Alaska, it pays to understand the time zones and time zone differences, so you always time your calls or work schedules right. After all, no one wants to be woken up at 3am to answer a business call or log in to a Zoom meeting at midnight.
In the following sections, we’ll explain what Coordinated Universal Time is, how to calculate time zone differences, and how Alaska Standard Time or AKST is observed throughout the year. At the end of the article, we’ll share some fun facts about time zones – we bet you’ll be blown away how some parts of the world observe their time!
Timing it Right: Coordinated Universal Time
Time zones were first introduced in the nineteenth century, when the need to have coordinated time around the globe for trade, military, and transportation purposes became all too important. The proposal was simple: since the Earth rotates 15 degrees every hour, that means that midday occurs at different times around the world. Taking the Greenwich Meridian as longitude zero, if you travel West by 15 degrees, the midday will occur one hour earlier than on Greenwich, and if you travel fifteen degrees East, it will be an hour late. The Earth has 24 slices of 15 degrees each, and that’s your time zones right there.
However, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), it turns out, isn’t as accurate as we previously thought. Sometimes, there are slight discrepancies in the earth’s rotation, causing what is known “leap seconds” – they occur when the Earth’s rotation is a little slower or faster than usual. It’s just seconds, but for the sake of accuracy, in 1972, it was agreed to observe Coordinated Universal Time which is monitored by highly precise atomic clocks so that the “zero hour” always remains the same and isn’t slowly drifting away.
Ever since, UTC has become a time standard, whereas GMT remains a time zone – but no longer a time standard.
Now, the time zone differences are calculated using UTC. Anything West of UTC will have a negative offset by one, two, three or more hours, depending on the longitude; equally, anything East will have a positive offset depending on location. Don’t let geography confuse you, though: time zones are “sliced” vertically rather than horizontally, which means that countries thousands of miles from each other may be in the same time zone, and countries relatively close to each other observe different time. Cape Town and Madrid are in the same time zone, but Madrid and Lisbon are not: this is because time zones are calculated by West-East reference rather than North-South.
Alaska Standard Time
If time zones are 15 degrees of longitude each, how is it possible that Alaska spans over five time zones, but only observes two?
The answer is simple: convenience. During the winter months, Alaska observes the Alaska standard Time or abbreviated AKST (UTC-9), and from March to November, the locals wind their clocks forward to observe the daylight savings time. This wasn’t always the case – in the early twentieth century, Alaska had a tough time figuring out its own timekeeping as several time zones (UTC-10, -9, and -11 were observed throughout the state, and Alaska varied between Yukon Standard and Pacific Standard Time, while Nome and the Aleutians observed Bering Standard Time). In 1918, the Interstate Commerce Commission was tasked with defining a unified Alaskan time for trade and commerce purposes, and the majority of Alaska observes the Alaska Standard Time since.
This, however, isn’t without its own challenges and peculiarities. Alaska spans several time zones, which means that the westernmost parts of the state are off by almost three hours from Central Alaska, and the easternmost parts are off by even more hours than the West. During the daylight savings time in the summer, this is even more pronounced: for example, the sun sets at about 9.40 pm in Anchorage, but the time there is actually 11.40 – in other words, a midnight sunset. In Juneau, on the other hand, it’s the other way round. In Fairbanks, sunset can occur as late as 12:40 the next day; in Nome, the sunrise occurs at 12:02 p.m., about 4 hours before sunset at 3:56 p.m. Crazy, right?
Not necessarily: as large portions of Alaska are more or less uninhabited, the locals hardly notice – and having one time zone makes it easier to coordinate time. On the other hand, Alaskans sometimes take it upon themselves to figure out what time works best: for example, the town of Hyder in the Inside Passage unofficially observes two time zones. Hyder is divided by the US-Canadian border and the locals here observe Pacific Time – except for the postal works. The US Post Office in Hyder, as a federal US facility, is on Alaska Time regardless of what the locals prefer.
The relaxed attitude Alaska has on timekeeping is down to the state’s history. Essentially, in the US and Canada, time zone unification and keeping exact time became necessary in the 1850s when the expanding network of railroads demanded each town to keep an exact time to avoid collisions at crossing points; in order to have the trains operating safely, time needed to be precise. By 1880s, the railroads established Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones. Alaska, however, had no railroads – and here, exact time mattered little until around 1903, when the US military began constructing a telegraph system connecting the towns in Alaska, which required a more accurate timekeeping.
Territories and Cities in Alaska Standard Time:
- The state of Alaska
Interesting Time Zone Facts
- Accurate timekeeping and time zone differences are an obvious necessity in these days, but it wasn’t always the case: just two centuries ago, people were happily oblivious to exact time. Farmers rose and went to bed when the sun rose or set, and most people went about their day without worrying about hours and minutes: for example, in 1790, fewer than ten percent of Americans had clocks, and most of the clocks they did have had no minute hand.
- Two places on Earth still have no official time to this day: The South and the north Poles. This is because the longitude lines that define time zones meet at the Poles, making them…well, timeless. Scientists who work on the Poles usually keep their own country’s time or simply stick to GMT.
- Speaking of timeless: the International Space Station is constantly orbiting the Earth, adhering to no time zone at all. To keep things simple, the ISS follows GMT, much like the South or the North Pole.
- Alaska’s decision to observe just one time zone when the territory covers five may seem odd, but not to the Chinese. Although China spans several time zones just like Alaska, there is only one time observed across the country: Bejing time. This means that sunrise isn’t until 10 am in Eastern China, but somehow, the locals manage. India is another country that has only one time zone despite being so vast it could easily observe several.
- After all, time is just an agreement: although France is on the same meridian as the UK, Paris observes a GMT+1 timezone. Because they’re French – but also because this helps to facilitate trade and commerce with other European countries much easier. Sorry, England.
- Some countries take it a step further and have half-hour or even fifteen-minute offsets: Nepal Myanmar, India, and Afghanistan among others observe thirty or fifteen-minute time offsets. Talk about timing it right…
- …or time travel: UTC -12 and UTC+12 are the same time zone, just with a different date. If you were to travel from Gilbert Islands, which are in the UTC+12 time zone, and arrived in Baker Island on the Pacific Ocean, your time would be the same – but your date would be a day off.
- Shockingly, a few places on Earth use time zones that do not exist – UTC+ 13, +14, and +15. Pacific Ocean islands of Tonga, Tokelau, and Samoa use the UTC+13 time zone, and Kiritimati uses UTC+14. Does that mean they have 15-hour days? Not quite – this is because they’re located right atop the date line, making it all the more confusing.