Diomedes Islands US Russia NASA

Article by Fanney Ingvadóttir: Nestled in the Bering Strait between Alaska, United States, and Chukotka, Russia, lie two remote islands that not only mark the divide between two nations but also straddle the enigmatic International Date Line.

The Diomede Islands, consisting of Big Diomede (Tomorrow island) and Little Diomede (Yesterday island), serve as a geographical testament to the complexities and fascinating implications of time and international boundaries. To the north is the Chukchi Sea and to the south is the Bering Sea. 

Geography and History

The Diomede Islands, named after the Greek explorer Diomedes, are located approximately 3.8 km or 2.4 miles apart at their closest point. Danish navigator Vitus Bering sighted the Islands on 16 August 1728, the day on which the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates the memory of the saint Diomedes, hence the name. In 1732, a Russian geodesist, Mikhail Gvozdev, determined longitude and latitude for the two islands.

When the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, it included Little Diomede or Krusenstern Island (Inupiaq: Iŋaliq). The island spans only 7.3 square kilometers. Big Diomede known as Ratmanov Island was not included in the purchase and therefore belongs to Russia. Subsequently, the two nations drew a boundary line between the islands. The passage between the islands has since been referred to as the “ice curtain”, a reference to politics rather than climate. During winter, an ice bridge usually spans the distance between these two islands, therefore at times it is theoretically possible to walk between the United States and Russia - although not legal since travel between the two islands is strictly forbidden!

Population – Challenges and Remote living

Life on the Diomede Islands presents numerous challenges due to their isolated location and harsh climate. Extreme weather conditions, limited access to resources, and minimal economic opportunities make daily life demanding for the islanders. However, they exhibit remarkable resilience and resourcefulness, preserving their communities and traditions.

A community of Iñupiat people from Alaska has braved the treacherous conditions on the minuscule island of Little Diomede for more than 3,000 years. As of January 2023, Little Diomede had a population of 77, down from its recorded peak of 178 in 1990. The entirety of the island is in the town of Diomede which is located on a small beach on the island´s western side making it possible for the residents to view Russia from their homes.

The island has roughly 30 buildings, a school, a library, a church, and a heliport but no roads. There are no restaurants or hotels in town and only one store that has a limited selection of food, clothing, weapons, and fuel delivered by sea usually from the town of Nome, Alaska.

The days of the inhabitants are dedicated to hunting whales and seals, as well as being on the lookout for polar bears as they are prone to attack residents on the island. Local residents are known for their skill in ivory carving which they trade or sell on the mainland.

Big Diomede Island has no permanent native population after the military base was established there in 1948, the Soviet government relocated the indigenous population of the island to mainland Russia. Today it is the site of a Russian weather station and a base of Russian Border Guard troops.

Winter temperatures on the islands can plunge to as low as -14°C, with the landscape remaining frozen from December through June. In the summer temperatures can reach 10°C. 

Bridging the International Date Line

The International Date Line, an imaginary line running roughly along the 180° meridian, determines the transition between calendar dates. As one crosses the line from west to east, they essentially "gain" a day, while crossing from east to west results in "losing" a day. This transition is significant, as it affects not only the date but also the time, potentially creating a 24-hour difference.

The proximity of the Diomede Islands to the International Date Line has intriguing implications. Due to the time difference between Russia and the United States, Big Diomede lies in "tomorrow," while Little Diomede is in "today" or "yesterday" depending on the reference point. This positioning makes them a living testament to the complexities of time and international boundaries, allowing visitors to literally step into the future or the past.

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