top of page

Global warming is affecting the Earth's rotation and global timekeeping

Global warming is affecting the Earth's rotation and global timekeeping
Time synchronization worldwide is essential for the uniformity of time displayed on devices such as smartphones and computers. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)


The global timekeeping system faces a looming challenge, as highlighted in a recent study published in the most recent issue of Nature. The paper, authored by Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, sheds light on the influence of global warming on this impending issue.


Time synchronization worldwide is essential for the uniformity of time displayed on devices such as smartphones and computers. Periodically, an additional second, known as a leap second, is introduced to adjust for irregularities in the Earth's rotation.


 
 

The impact of leap seconds


Failure to account for these leap seconds can lead to discrepancies in timekeeping across different computer networks, potentially causing confusion and operational disruptions.


Astronomical regulator on display in Putnam Gallery, Harvard University.
Astronomical regulator on display in Putnam Gallery, Harvard University. (CREDIT: Daderot)


Leap seconds were initially implemented in 1972 during the infancy of computer networks. Although most systems have been programmed to accommodate occasional leap seconds, Agnew warns that a new challenge may emerge within the next decade: the need for a negative leap second, where a minute lasts only 59 seconds.


 
 

This unprecedented event could pose significant synchronization issues for interconnected computer systems, with potential consequences yet to be fully understood.


Agnew explains, "Even a few years ago, the expectation was that leap seconds would always be positive, and happen more and more often. But if you look at changes in the Earth's rotation, which is the reason for leap seconds, and break down what causes these changes, it looks like a negative one is quite likely. One second doesn't sound like much, but in today's interconnected world, getting the time wrong could lead to huge problems."


 

Related Stories

 

Moreover, the study suggests that the occurrence of a negative leap second would have been even sooner if not for the influence of global warming. This connection between timekeeping and climate change stems from the historical basis of timekeeping and the geophysical dynamics of the Earth's rotation.


Currently, timekeeping relies on atomic clocks, which measure time based on the oscillations of cesium atoms. While atomic clocks provide a consistent reference for time, the actual time used globally, known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), is a combination of atomic time and a traditional definition based on the Earth's rotation.


 
 

Climate changes impact on the Earth's rotation


The Earth's rotation is subject to variability, resulting in deviations from atomic time. These deviations necessitate periodic adjustments, such as leap seconds, to maintain synchronization between atomic time and Earth's rotational time. Factors contributing to these variations include changes in the distribution of mass on Earth and fluctuations in the Earth's liquid core.


Changes in J2
Changes in J2. (CREDIT: Nature)


One significant factor influencing Earth's rotation is the melting of land ice at high latitudes, a consequence of global warming. As polar ice melts and redistributes mass, it alters the Earth's rotational speed. Additionally, movements within the Earth's liquid core contribute to changes in the planet's rotation rate, as proposed by scientists Roger Revelle and Walter Munk of Scripps Institution of Oceanography.


 
 

Observations indicate a steady slowing of Earth's rotation, primarily attributed to changes in the rotation of the Earth's core. Despite the mitigating effects of global warming on this trend, projections suggest the possibility of a negative leap second being required around 2028, according to Agnew's analysis.


Changes in spin rate and their effects on timescales.
Changes in spin rate and their effects on timescales. (CREDIT: Nature)


Agnew emphasizes the significance of these findings, stating, "That climate change has been able to change how fast the whole Earth spins is yet another indication that we are having an effect on the world unlike anything seen before."


 
 

The potential need for a negative leap second underscores the intricate interplay between climate change and fundamental aspects of Earth's geophysics, raising concerns about the future stability of global time synchronization.







For more environmental good news stories check out our Green Impact section at The Brighter Side of News.


 

Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


 
 

Like these kind of feel good stories? Get the Brighter Side of News' newsletter.


 

Comments


Most Recent Stories

bottom of page