Imagine waking up on your island home, to know your neighbors on an island two miles away will soon be eating the next day’s breakfast.
This is the real scenario for the residents of the two Diomede islands: Big Diomede and Little Diomede. Despite being just 2.4 miles (3.8 km) apart, they have a 21-hour time difference. No wonder they are also known as Tomorrow Island (Big Diomede) and Yesterday Island (Little Diomede).
The incredible time zone difference has both historical and geographical reasons. The two islands, located in the Bering Sea, approximately halfway between Alaska and Russia, are separated by the International Date Line (IDL).
To add to the uniqueness of the situation, Little Diomede is American, and Big Diomede is Russian. And it’s just 51 miles (82 km)—the narrowest part of the Bering Strait—that separate the two countries from one another.
In 1867, the United States bought Alaska from Russia using the two small islands as a marker to draw the border. It mattered little to the residents—mostly Inupiat Eskimos—who continued coexisting as they always had, right up until the onset of the Cold War when the escalating tensions forbade travel between the two islands.
Around 77 U.S. citizens live in the town of Diomede on Little Diomede, according to the World Population Review. Living a traditional lifestyle, they survive by hunting sea animals and by harvesting fish and crabs. The main access to the island is by helicopter.
Big Diomede on the other hand has no permanent population, instead housing a Russian weather station and a military base. During the Cold War, former residents were displaced and many moved to Siberia.
Prior to the conflict though, the islands were joined as a single community. In winter when the water between the islands freezes solid into an ice bridge, locals regularly crossed back and forth. Few took notice of the border and international date line passing between them, and Big and Little Diomedeans would regularly intermarry, their cultures and customs blending into one.
Technically, they were separated a day apart, but in reality, life carried on normally, in sync.
Today, the town of Diomede is located around a small beach on the western side of Little Diomede. Residents are able to view Russia, in the form of Big Diomede, from the windows of their homes.
All that lies between the two landmasses is the stretch of water known as the “ice curtain”: 2.4 miles, and 21 hours away.