The changing shape of the Earth could cause a global timekeeping crisis

Unless we take action, global timekeeping could be heading for a major problem that will wreak havoc on everything from computer networks to financial markets. Strangely enough, the culprit is the melting Arctic ice, caused by climate change.

The world uses Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) to ensure that a consistent, standardized measure of time exists around the world to facilitate communication, navigation, scientific research, trade, and so on.

This measure of time is calculated using data from about 450 atomic clocks, super-accurate time-keeping devices that use the ultra-stable ‘vibrations’ of atoms to measure time. Annoyingly, it doesn’t correspond perfectly with astronomical time, which is based on the Earth’s rotation.

Our planet’s rotation is a few milliseconds longer than a day defined by atomic clocks, and the speed of Earth’s rotation can vary due to many factors. To account for this, leap seconds are added to UTC every few years to ensure they are in sync with astronomical time.

For example, strange and somewhat unknown changes in Earth’s largely liquid core and solid mantle have accelerated Earth’s rotation in recent decades, but this has been explained by the addition of leap seconds.

Now new forces are beginning to emerge that could further disrupt the Earth’s rotation rate and disrupt global timekeeping.

Duncan Carr Agnew, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, recently studied Earth’s rotation and how it is affected by melting polar ice.

Due to climate change, the ice caps on Greenland and Antarctica are melting on such a scale that they are changing the shape of the planet and decreasing its angular velocity faster than before.

Due to Earth’s slower rotation, Agnew argues that the UTC will have to have a negative leap second – ie. a minute with only 59 seconds – somewhere around 2029.

‘Even a few years ago, the expectation was that leap seconds would always be positive and would become increasingly common. But if you look at changes in Earth’s rotation, which is the reason for leap seconds, and break down what causes them, “If changes occur, it looks like a negative situation is very likely,” Agnew explains in a declaration.

“One second doesn’t sound like much, but in today’s interconnected world, getting the time wrong can lead to huge problems,” he added.

Regardless of climate change, it is likely that changes in the Earth’s liquid core alone will necessitate a negative leap second by 2026. However, Agnew’s calculations show that changes in polar ice mass have pushed back this possibility by another three years to 2029. In other words: Climate change is already affecting global timekeeping.

If the negative leap second is not added, global timekeeping may become out of sync, causing massive disruptions to computer systems and telecommunications networks.

The press release for the study suggests the situation could lead to a problem similar to the Y2K bug panic – but is that a real concern?

In the late 1990s, there was intense paranoia that computer systems around the world would crash in the new millennium because computers were unwilling to format or store calendar data in and after the year 2000. People imagined a computer-induced apocalypse in which planes would crash. bank accounts would be zeroed out of the air and nuclear weapons would be launched spontaneously. As you’ve no doubt guessed, fears were greatly exaggerated and very few errors were reported.

Given how poorly the Y2K scare predictions have turned out, it would be naive to make wild guesses about how this new problem might unfold. That said, it’s something that many scientists are starting to think about.

“A negative leap second has never been added or tested, so the problems it could cause are unprecedented. Metrologists around the world are following the discussion closely, with an eye to avoiding unnecessary risks,” writes Dr. Patrizia Tavella, director of the Time Division of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, in a commentary article on the study.

Dr. Tavella adds that the task of introducing the negative leap second – and coordinating efforts globally – would be a “formidable” task.

The new study has been published in the journal Nature.

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