One giant leap for mankind, well, a one second leap

29 Jun 2015

Summer is naturally the time of year when our days get longer, with June no different. And now, the time Gods are blessing us with an extra second to enjoy our warmer months.

Due to a tiny, gradually accumulating anomaly in how we measure 24 hours on Earth, every now and then additional time must be given to even out the cracks between reality and human calculations.

So tomorrow, after months of accumulating .002 of a second a day without acknowledging it, the International Earth Rotation Service is making amends.

This affects the tech industry because leap seconds cannot be predicted with any great accuracy too far in advance, which means it can throw software right out of sync.

“In the short term, leap seconds are not as predictable as everyone would like,” said Chopo Ma, a geophysicist at Goddard and a member of the directing board of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service.

“The modelling of the Earth predicts that more and more leap seconds will be called for in the long term, but we can’t say that one will be needed every year.”

The readjustment was first implemented in the 1970s, happening annually until the end of the millennium. Since then it has happened every three years or so, with the last instance having an impact on the likes of Foursquare, Reddit, Linkedln and Yelp.

According to the The Independent, more than 400 flights were delayed as the Qantas check-in system crashed in Australia, too.

What is a leap second?

Before the 1970s we simply didn’t realise just how out of kilter our clocks were with our planet’s rotation – or more accurately put, we didn’t realise how poor Earth was at being a clock.

The fix is tiny, however, it is necessary. If these added seconds were ignored over hundreds of years, the time we perceive sunsets and sunrises to occur would be off significantly.

Earth’s tardiness boils down to numerous planetary factors, including short-term atmospheric changes, such as storms and heatwaves.

“Other contributors to this variation include dynamics of the Earth’s inner core (over long time periods), variations in the atmosphere and oceans, groundwater, and ice storage (over time periods of months to decades), and oceanic and atmospheric tides,” according to NASA.

There is a lot of work ongoing to find better models for how we measure, and predict, time. And, if you consider the accuracy needed by global stock markets – every millisecond is utilised to ensure prices are accurate – that will be a welcome discovery.

Of course, recalibrating time is nothing new, with Greenwich Mean Time established on the back of rail systems linking businesses hundreds of miles apart.

We survived then, presumably we’ll survive until the now delayed month of July, too.

Main image, via Shuttertsock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic