Climate Change Affecting Earth’s Rotation Speed and Timekeeping According to a Study

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A study indicates that climate change might influence how we measure time by changing the speed of the Earth’s rotation. 

Accelerated Ice Melt Affecting Earth’s Rotation

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The accelerated ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica is pouring more water into the oceans, changing the mass distribution and marginally slowing the Earth’s spin. 

However, the Earth is rotating quicker than before.

The Ticking Climate Clock

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This means global timekeepers could postpone adjusting our clocks by subtracting a second later than expected. The study in Nature journal highlights tha global warming is now influencing how we manage global time.

Changing Days and Nights?


Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), the standard most of the world follows to set clocks and time, depends on the Earth’s rotation. Yet, the rotation rate of the Earth isn’t fixed, which can alter the length of our days and nights.

Leap Seconds and Earth’s Speeding Rotation

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Variations in the planet’s liquid core have recently sped up the Earth’s rotation. To adjust for this since the 1970s, timekeepers have added approximately 27 leap seconds to the global clock and are considering the removal of a second in 2026, known as a negative leap second. 

Melting Ice vs. Earth’s Speed

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The study indicates that climate change-induced ice melt is counterbalancing this speedup. Ice sheets are now losing mass at a rate five times what they did three decades ago, suggesting the need for a negative leap second might be pushed to 2029.

Human Impact on Earth’s Rotation


Duncan Agnew, the study’s lead author, expressed amazement to NBC News at the significant impact human actions have had on the Earth’s rotation speed, noting that humans are facing situations that have no historical precedent

The Challenge of the Negative Leap Second


The study indicates the first-ever need for a negative leap second, which is expected to pose unique challenges for computer systems worldwide. 

In his discussion with AFP, Mr. Agnew, a University of California, San Diego researcher, highlighted the novelty of this challenge in keeping global timing systems aligned. 

Rethinking Time

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Mr. Agnew further mentioned the necessity for significant modifications to many computer programs that currently only recognize positive leap seconds.

Skepticism Surrounding the Leap Second

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The study has faced its share of skepticism. Demetrios Matsakis, who previously led time services as the chief scientist at the US Naval Observatory, voiced doubts to AFP, suggesting that the Earth’s unpredictability makes it challenging to confidently predict the need for a negative leap second in the near future.

Climate Change’s Broader Impacts

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This skepticism comes against the backdrop of human-induced climate change, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, which is driving up global temperatures. 

The consequent temperature increase is exerting a significant impact on the environment, notably causing glaciers and ice sheets to melt rapidly.

Geological and Climatic Influences on Rotation

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Earth’s rotation is influenced by various geological and climatic factors, including the effects of ocean tides and the melting of polar ice, which postpone the necessity for adjustments through leap seconds. 

The rapid melt of polar ice, driven by human-caused climate change, is altering the distribution of Earth’s mass, leading to a slower rotation. 

Climate Change and Timekeeping Adjustments

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The study highlights that, were it not for the recent acceleration in ice melt, the leap second issue would have arisen three years earlier. 

This underscores the direct impact of climate change on the planet’s rotational patterns, evident in the global timekeeping adjustments. 

Environmental Shifts and Earth’s Timekeeping

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While the Earth’s rotation is naturally speeding up, the melting ice has pushed the need for a leap-second adjustment from 2026 to roughly 2029, illustrating the complex interplay between environmental shifts and the mechanisms of Earth’s timekeeping. 

Future of Leap Seconds and Timekeeping

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To address these evolving dynamics and ensure continued precision, timekeepers are planning to discontinue the use of leap seconds by 2035, adapting to both natural variations and the effects of human activity.

Kate Smith, a self-proclaimed word nerd who relishes the power of language to inform, entertain, and inspire. Kate's passion for sharing knowledge and sparking meaningful conversations fuels her every word.