As scientists consider dropping a second from their atomic clocks for the first time, others warn it could lead to generalized disturbance
On a normal day, the Earth rotates at approximately 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 had shaved 1.59 milliseconds off its usual time and nearly again on July 26, when it dropped 1.5 milliseconds.
Apparently, the Earth has been accelerating for several years now. In 2020, it set new records no less than 28 times, according to Time and date, although the last record was set in 2005. It looks like this trend will continue in 2022, but scientists still don’t agree on why the Earth’s spin is speeding up. Is he possessed by demonic energy? Thrown out of harm’s way by Large Hadron Collider? Accelerated by the climate crisis? (Disclaimer: Only one of these theories has actual scientific backing.)
A more important question for us, perhaps, is whether it even matters that we are spinning milliseconds faster as we float through space. How will it affect our daily lives if we keep speeding up? Will centrifugal force liquefy us? Probably not, but it could have some unexpected side effects, from time-keeping glitches to Year 2000-style glitches in the systems that keep society afloat.
Below, we explore some theories about the reasons for the acceleration of the Earth and take a closer look at the effects it is likely to have in the near future.
THE ‘CHANDLER WOBBLE’
One possible explanation for Earth’s recent acceleration is a deviation of the planet’s axis that was first discovered in 1891. Dubbed the “Chandler Wobble” – after astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler – this basically spins around the fact that the Earth’s poles shift. a few meters over 433 days.
From 2017 to 2020, however, the Earth wobbled much less, a change that coincides with the date when the days began to shorten. Some scientists have suggested that the disappearance of the Chandler Wobble is related to the acceleration of the Earth’s rotation, although others have dismissed the theory: the jury is still out.
THE CLIMATE CRISIS
The speed at which the Earth rotates is affected by all its different parts, inincluding its inner and outer layers, tides, ocean levels, and climate. One hypothesis for the recent acceleration comes from the fact that some of these parts 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 spheroid (a slightly flattened sphere), to something closer to a properly round sphere. Because Earth’s mass would be closer to its center, its rotational speed would increase, just as if you were spinning in a chair, raising your arms would slow you down and tucking them in would speed you up.
WHAT WILL WE DO?
A few milliseconds may not seem like much, but it all adds up. In 2016, for example, a study led by astronomers at the Royal Observatory Greenwich revealed that Earth’s rotation has changed (actually slowed) by about six hours in the past 2,740 years. To keep up with this fluctuation, scientists often have to adjust their atomic clocks.
Indeed, the timers have as reported added 27 “leap seconds” since 1972, to account for the long-term deceleration of Earth’s spin (thanks to the Moon) and to keep the digital world in sync with the actual length of Earth’s days. Now that Earth is speeding up after decades of deceleration, however, they face the disconcerting prospect of having to take (or “drop”) a second off global time.
THE SECOND SCAFFOLDERS HAVE IMPORTANT EFFECTS
Because our technological infrastructure is so dependent on a universally agreed upon time, leap seconds have often caused disruption to entire businesses, technologies, and industries that rely on regular and incredibly accurate timekeeping.
Meta, Microsoft, Google and Amazon, backed by French and American timekeepers, even collectively launched a public effort to eliminate the second interleaved altogether by 2022, claiming the practice causes more trouble than it’s worth. pity See: Reddit’s massive outage 2012and the massive Cloudflare failure 2017.
“Second jump events have caused problems throughout the industry and continue to present many risks,” say Meta Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi on July 25 blog entry. “As an industry, we run into problems whenever a split second is introduced. And because it’s such a rare event, it devastates the community every time it happens.”
“The impact of a second negative interleave has never been tested on a large scale” – Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF WE LEAVE A SECOND?
Timekeepers have never been forced to reckon with the acceleration of the Earth before, and responding to this rare situation with a “drop second” would be a world first. Needless to say, this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for causing the kind of disruption that split seconds typically do.
In reality, no one really seems to know what the extent or nature of the damage would be if the timers were to take a second for the first time. “The impact of a second negative jump has never been tested on a large scale,” say Obleukhov and Byagowi. “It could have a devastating effect on software that relies on timers or schedulers.”
What does this mean for us, if the Earth’s rotation continues to accelerate? It’s hard to say. Perhaps our desire to keep up will set off a wave of chaos in the tech industry and send us back into the tech dark ages. Maybe we’ll find a new way to make up the difference. Chances are we’ll lose access to Reddit for a couple of hours and then everything will be back to normal, because the whole time is basically back up anyway.
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