Spending any amount of time looking at a map of world time zones is likely to spark two reactions in any amateur geographer. First, fascination and curiosity, followed by confusion and perhaps a slight headache. Time zones are a result of trying to project the realities of a spherical earth onto a flat map, and then making exceptions and allowances for politics and geography, leading to a map with so many exceptions and oddities that trying to make sense of it is usually not worth the trouble, unless you have an immediate reason for doing so. And don't even get me started on daylight savings time. Or the Kiribati Islands.

But rather than try to figure out all the possible oddities of time zones, I am going to confine myself to one question: of all the world's time zones, which one is the least populated? I will forego the easy answer, which is to mention time zones with no population in them at all: some time zones, most notably GMT -12, have no population, since they are not actually used for anything but are thin triangles in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. GMT -2, in the Atlantic Ocean, although it crosses the lengths of the ocean, is similarly unpopulated, a point that will be returned to in a few moments.

There are some false leads in doing such a search, because often an unpopulated area shares a time zone to another area, often to the north or south, but often to the east or west. St. Pierre and Miquelon, the last part of France's once vast colonial realm in North America, is at GMT -3, something that no other part of North America can claim. Until you go north and find Greenland, which also mostly uses that time zone. And then, even further south, the vast majority of Brazil and Argentina, well over a 100 million people, also uses that time zone. Easter Island is the only place south of the equator to be in GMT -6, but this fact is much less important when we realize that this is the same time zone that we in North America call Central Time. So the people of Easter Island are in the same time zone as the majority of people in Mexico, and quite a bit of people in America and Canada, far to the north, and quite a bit to the east. But, after looking through all those tricky answers, I think the answer to the least populated time zone has been found:

The least populated time zone is GMT + 10.5, which is used exclusively in the Lord Howe Islands, a small chain of islands some 400 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. The Lord Howe Islands are in the middle of GMT +11, but maintain a time that is halfway between the other islands in the group, and the time back on the east coast of Australia. They have a population of around 350 people. Lord Howe island is about 10 miles square, and is a protected area due to the importance of its natural flora, and is probably not going to get much more populous than it is already. So we have a winner, but let us look at some runner's up: most interestingly, the next two runner's up have some similar circumstances. They are GMT + 12.75, taken up by the Chatham Islands, a small group of islands off the east coast of New Zealand, and GMT + 11.5, taken up by the Norfolk Islands, a small group of islands east of the Lord Howe Islands but west of New Zealand. These island groups have a population of 650 and 2100 people respectively, and are both island outposts of the South Pacific's two large anglophone powers. All three island groups are natural areas that are discouraged from development. Although it lies somewhat out of the scope of this essay, I also wonder why these islands must have their own time zone, and although it sounds a bit paranoid, I imagine that at some point, the English colonialists and their descendents decided to set themself off from the grass skirt wearing natives in the surrounding South Pacific by giving themselves peculiar time zones.

Whatever the cause of the origin of these time zones may be, the reader may feel cheated at my presentation of some small islands with fractional time zones as the answer to my question. What if we are to discount these fractional time zones and look for the least populated integer time zone in the world? There is an obvious answer to this, already presented above: GMT -2, consisting mostly of the uninhabited Atlantic Ocean, does include the territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which while it does not have any organic settlements, does have a number of people stationed there, in the form of research personnel and support staff. GMT -2 has a "population" of around two dozen people, then. However, discounting if we discount this answer, the next least populated integer time zone is somewhat hard to guess at. The best guess is probably GMT +13. As a note, it should be pointed out that GMT + 13 shouldn't exist, since it should be GMT -11. However, the nations of Tonga and part of Kiribati have placed themselves in the situation of extending the International Date Line east of where it should be. The parts of this island inside of GMT +13 (and for that matter, GMT +14), consist of a few tens of thousands of people. Either GMT + 13 or GMT + 14 are therefore the world's least populated integer time zone.

Further discounting the fact that this involves another bending of the already confused nature of time zones, the next candidate is American Samoa and Western Samoa, which share GMT -11, with a population of around a quarter million between them.

Through our careful examination of the wonder and confusion that is the world's time zone system, we have hopefully learned something. Perhaps we have learned the best place to go to confuse people about where and when we are. But more importantly, we have learned that time zones, like any other feature of human culture that starts with science and necessity can be warped by history, tradition and perhaps chauvinism until it makes no sense whatsoever.

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