As scientists consider dropping a second from their atomic clocks for the first time, others warn it could Widespread disruption
On a normal day, the Earth rotates at about 1,000 miles per hour, or 460 meters per second (as measured at the equator). On June 29, 2022, however, scientists measured the shortest day since records began in the 1960s—Earth shaved 1.59 milliseconds off its usual time, and nearly repeated that on July 26 when it knocked 1.5 milliseconds off.
Apparently, the Earth has been accelerating for a few years now. In 2020, accordingly, new records were set no fewer than 28 times time and date, despite the last record being set in 2005. This trend looks set to continue in 2022, but scientists still don’t agree on why the Earth’s rotation is accelerating. Does it have demonic energy? Thrown off-kilter by Large Hadron Collider? Faster because of the climate crisis? (Disclaimer: Only one of these theories has any real scientific support.)
A more important question for us, perhaps, is whether it matters that we are moving at millisecond speeds as we float through space. If we continue to accelerate, how will it affect our daily lives? Will we liquefy by centrifugal force? Probably not, but it could have some unintended side effects, from periodic inconveniences to Year 2000-style bugs in community-driven systems.
Below, we explore some of the theories behind Earth’s acceleration and take a deeper look at what its likely implications are in the near future.
One possible explanation for Earth’s recent acceleration is the deviation of the planet’s axis, first discovered in 1891. Dubbed the “Chandler Wobble” – after astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler – it essentially revolves around the fact that Earth’s poles shift by a few meters over a period of 433 days.
From 2017 to 2020, however, the Earth shrunk significantly, a change that coincided with the date when the days began to shorten. Some scientists have suggested that the disappearance of the Chandler Wobble is related to the speed of the Earth’s rotation, although others reject this theory – the jury is still out.
The speed at which the Earth rotates affects all its different partsIt includes interior and exterior layers, tides, ocean levels, and climate. One hypothesis for the recent acceleration stems from the fact that some of these areas are changing rapidly due to the climate crisis.
As the ice caps melt at each of Earth’s poles, they exert less pressure on the top and bottom of the planet. This apparently changes the overall shape of the Earth’s crust from an oblate sphere (slightly squashed sphere) to a near perfectly spherical sphere. Because the Earth’s mass will then be closer to its center, its rotation will speed up – just like if you were spinning in a chair, holding your arms out would slow you down and tucking them in would speed you up.
What are we going to do?
A few milliseconds may not sound like much, but it’s all it takes. In 2016, for example, a study led by Royal Observatory Greenwich astronomers showed that Earth’s rotation has changed (actually, slowed down) by about six hours over the past 2,740 years. To account for these fluctuations, scientists often have to adjust their atomic clocks.
In fact, there are timekeepers According to reports 27 “leap-seconds” were added since 1972, the long-term slowing of Earth’s rotation (thanks to the Moon) and keeping the digital world in sync with Earth’s actual day length. Now that the Earth is speeding up after decades of slowing down, however, there is a surprising possibility that they may have to move (or “drop”) a second off world time.
Leap seconds have knock-on effects
Because our technological infrastructure depends on universally agreed time, leap-seconds have disrupted companies, technologies, and entire industries that rely on regular, and incredibly accurate, timekeeping.
Meta, Microsoft, Google and Amazon – backed by French and US timekeepers – even launched a public effort to eliminate leap-seconds entirely by 2022, claiming that the practice causes more problems than it’s worth. See: Massive Reddit outage in 2012And the huge cloudflare glitch in 2017.
“Leap second events have created problems and many risks throughout the industry,” says Meta Oleg Oblukhov and Ahmed Byagovi on July 25 Blog post. “As an industry, we face problems whenever the leap second is introduced. And because it’s such a rare occurrence, it devastates society every time it happens.”
“The negative leap second effect has never been investigated on a large scale” – Oleg Oblukhov and Ahmad Byagovi
What if we drop a second?
Timekeepers have never before been forced to consider Earth speeding up, and it would be the first world to respond to this rare event with a “drop-second”. Needless to say, this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities, especially for causing disruption caused by leap-seconds.
In reality, no one really knows what the extent or nature of the damage would be if the timekeepers took a second the first time. “The negative leap second effect has never been widely investigated,” say Oblyukhov and Byagovi. “This can have a devastating effect on software that relies on timers or schedulers.”
If the Earth’s rotation is speeding up, what does this mean for us? It’s hard to say. Perhaps our desire to survive will cause a wave of chaos throughout the technology industry and return us to the dark ages of technology. Maybe we’ll find a new way to make a difference. Most likely, we’ll lose access to Reddit for a few hours and then everything will be back to normal, because all time is basically made up anyway.