South Pacific Battles for Y2K Bragging Rights

Fellows Fall 1999

By Colin Woodard

June 08, 2009

MAJURO, Marshall Islands, Fall 1999 -- In the uttermost reaches of the Pacific, four nations are jostling to be first to welcome the year 2000.

They're squaring off in a kind of geographic scrum that - in local terms - rivals the US-USSR race to be first to put a man on the moon. And it's more than a brouhaha over bragging rights.

At stake are millions of dollars' worth of television rights, tourism revenues, and a once-in-a-millennium opportunity to insert small and relatively poor (OK, New Zealand isn't poor) nations into the collective global consciousness.

Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati, and New Zealand have made competing claims that their territory will be the first inhabited land to see the dawn of year 2000. So who's right? The answer depends on whose criteria you use. Kiribati appears to have the others beat. Christmas Island, now called Kirimati, lies two time zones east of any other country on its side of the date line. But that's because in 1995 it created a 1,000 mile bulge in the date line so the entire nation would be in the same day.

"The decision had nothing to do with the millennium, which nobody was thinking about at the time," says Teebaniman Takabwbwe, Kiribati's millennium task force coordinator. "It was just very difficult to administer a small country that had two different dates."

But others cry foul. "You can't go by the international date line concept when countries are creating impossible time zones like [Greenwich mean time] plus 13 or 14 hours," says Adriaan Rodenburg of Millennium Fiji in Suva. "By that definition New York would be 20 hours ahead of London, which is of course ridiculous."

By Mr. Rodenburg's reasoning, the only "true" date line has to be the 180th parallel, which lies opposite Greenwich, England, whose time zone (GMT) is the internationally accepted standard for scientific and military time. "Fiji is the first bona fide place to enter the new millennium," he says.

That's because Fiji not only straddles the 180th parallel, three of its islands are actually bisected by it. Fiji has been actively promoting itself as "the first country to enter the 3rd millennium" and expects visits by cruise ships, divers, and a large contingent of Hari Krishna devotees led, reportedly, by pop star Boy George.

New Zealand, another millennium contender, dismisses both Fiji and Kiribati's claims. "They're just playing around with the date line," says Wendy Pannet of the New Zealand millennium office in Wellington. "All the experts agree that the first place to see the sunrise will be Pitt Island in the Chathams."

Pitt Island, population 55, is located in another small bulge in the international date line, one that puts it 45 minutes ahead of mainland New Zealand. A quiet, windswept island populated by sheep farmers,it suddenly found itself in the middle of the millennium craze when the Royal Observatory in London announced that one of its hills would be the first place to see the sunrise on Jan. 1, 2000.

The Lanauze family, owners of the hill, received multiple offers from international television networks seeking exclusive broadcast rights for the sunrise. The family reportedly settled for their government's offer of NZ$200,000 (US$102,000), which will be placed in a trust to benefit the island's residents.

With 800 million viewers expected to tune in to the Pitt Island sunrise, Ms. Pannet says the event has created "a unique opportunity for New Zealand to be in the eyes of the world." She says the government expects a long-term boost in tourism and trade as a result of the live broadcasts.

But matters got more complicated in August when King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV of Tonga ordered that his country add an hour of daylight saving time to leap-frog his nation into the millennium competition. Tonga now claims to be the first inhabited land to see the year 2000 and is hoping to attract big-spending tourists.

Rodenburg in Fiji says the Tongan claims are faulty for the same reasons as Kiribati. But his real ire is leveled at New Zealand, a relatively populous and prosperous nation he says is stealing from tiny Pacific countries.

"New Zealand has much more money and an enormous publicity machine," he says. "But we are slightly farther to the east, and nothing can take that away."

Experts say the international date line in fact has no legal standing and that countries like Kiribati are well within their rights to change their local time and date under international law. James Hilton, resident expert on the 2000 sunrise at the US Naval Observatory in Washington says this makes the use of the date line to determine who is first into the year 2000 somewhat arbitrary.

"If I were trying to make a scientific argument I'd have to say that the new year begins everywhere on Earth at the moment the clock reads midnight in Greenwich, England," he says. His calculations show that at that moment the sun will be rising simultaneously on a long arc across East Asia from Burma through China and Russia.

Dr. Hilton acknowledges that may not seem a very satisfying explanation, but that all other methods of deciding are "really pretty arbitrary."

One thing that is certain is that Pitt Island will be the first inhabited place to see the sunrise on Jan. 1, 2000, using the local time and date, Hilton says. Because the earth tilts on its axis, Pitt Island will see the sun before the easternmost islands in Kiribati and Tonga, despite their time and date changes.

But to really see the year's first "local-date" sunrise you'd have to journey to an uninhabited glacier crest in Wilkes Land, Antarctica. While the sun won't set over much of Antarctica that time of year, Hilton says it will briefly dip below the horizon in Wilkes Land. That would make it the first sunrise of the year, he says, "if anyone were there to see it."