Samoans who had gathered around a clock tower in the Samoan capital city of Apia cheered and clapped as the clock struck midnight on Thursday, December 29, 2011. These Samoan citizens – all 186,000 people who live in this island nation, plus the 1,500 people who live in the three-atoll United Nations dependency of Tokelau – instantly transported themselves 24 hours ahead to Saturday, December 31, 2011. Time travel? No. Economics.
Instead of being the last to greet the New Year, Samoa and Tokelau are now poised to be among the first countries to usher in 2012.
In May 2011, the Samoan parliament voted to move their time zone across the International Date Line, from the western to eastern hemisphere. They’ve now altered their 2011 calendar, going from Thursday, December 29 straight to Saturday, December 31.
This decision was made for economic reasons. Samoa’s main trading partners are nearby Australia and New Zealand, but – according to clocks and calendars – there’s been a 23-hour time difference between Samoa and New Zealand, 21 hours between Samoa and Australia’s east coast.
According to a December 28, 2011 article in The Guardian, Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi said:
In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we’re losing out on two working days a week. While it’s Friday here, it’s Saturday in New Zealand and when we’re at church on Sunday, they’re already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane.
Now that this time zone change has been enacted, Samoa, on the western part of the Samoa Island chain, has a 24-hour difference between her and the east side of the chain which includes American Samoa, a United States Territory.
Malielegaoi was also quoted in The Guardian, saying jokingly:
You can have two birthdays, two weddings and two wedding anniversaries on the same date – on separate days – in less than an hour’s flight across [the ocean], without leaving the Samoan chain.
A Samoan bank was quoted, in The Guardian, reassuring their customers that their credit cards will not be charged interest for that ‘missing’ day.
In actual fact, Samoa is reverting back to its original time zone. In her blog, Kelly Buchanan at the Library of Congress’s Law Library wrote,
Apparently, Samoa was previously on the western side of the International Date Line but decided in 1892 to switch across to the eastern side so that it was closer in time to the U.S..
And she wondered, can a country legally cancel a calendar date?
The answer is yes!
The first thing to note is that the International Date Line is not set by international law or any treaty. The history of the line goes back hundreds of years and involves the work of philosophers, geographers, astronomers, explorers and navigators, cartographers, and writers.
In 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held in Washington, DC. This conference led to the more formal adoption of the Greenwich meridian, which passes through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, UK, as the single “prime meridian” – making “Greenwich Mean Time” the world’s time standard and marking where the world is divided into eastern and western hemispheres. The line opposite the prime meridian is the 180th meridian (i.e., the 180 degree longitude line). Both lines are essentially arbitrary and a matter of convention and convenience, rather than law.
She also noted that the map showing the International Date Line showed a “crazy-looking squiggle.” See the map above to see what she means.
The most recent change to the International Date Line occurred in 1995 after Kiribati announced that all of the islands that make up the country would now be considered as sitting to the west of the line. For many years prior to this the line went through the middle of the different groups of islands – meaning that in some places it was today and in other places it was tomorrow, if you see what I mean.
It’s not the first time Samoa has instituted drastic change. In 2009, in a controversial move never before attempted by any country, car traffic rules were changed from the right-hand side of the road to the left-hand-side.
Bottom line: The Samoan calendar has gone from Thursday, December 29, 2011 to Saturday, December 31, 2011 in the blink of an eye as this island nation moved a time zone to the west, crossing the International Date Line. Along with neighboring Tokelau, the parliaments of both countries made this move to bring them closer in time zones to their main trading partners, Australia and New Zealand, to better synchronize their work days.
Shireen Gonzaga is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about natural history. She is also a technical editor at an astronomical observatory where she works on documentation for astronomers. Shireen has many interests and hobbies related to the natural world. She lives in Cockeysville, Maryland.