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Researchers evaluate pressing need for 'negative leap second' in our clocks: 'Things are happening that have not happened before'

"We can't say for certain what will happen and when."

"We can’t say for certain what will happen and when."

Photo Credit: iStock

A new study may have some people rethinking their relationship with time, and while it is too soon for researchers to make any definitive conclusions, melting ice is helping to provide the clues.

What's happening?

A paper published by the journal Nature in March suggests that warming global temperatures may result in a "negative leap second" being added in calculations of atomic time, a method used in modern clocks and by GPS satellites to accurately determine when we are in our days in relation to astronomical time.

As detailed by the Washington Post, the reason for this is the melting of ice caps — specifically in Antarctica and Greenland. This has caused changes to the Earth's shape, which in turn has impacted the rate at which it's spinning. 

"Global warming is managing to actually measurably affect the rotation of the entire Earth. Things are happening that have not happened before," study author Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist at the University of California at San Diego, told the news outlet. 

The Post noted that "27 leap seconds have been added to Universal Coordinated Time since 1972" to adjust for the slowing rotation of the planet. This was in line with "changes in Earth's rotation that appear to match 70-year oscillations in the rotation of the core."

However, a leap second hasn't been added since 2016. Agnew projects that a negative leap second might need to be adopted as early as 2026 to 2029. 

"We can't say for certain what will happen and when. However, we can say there is a higher percentage chance of a negative leap second than, say, 25 years ago," Nick Stamatakos, head of the U.S. Naval Observatory's Earth Orientation Department, told the Post in an email. 

Why is this concerning? 

The study is shedding light on another way that warming global temperatures could impact our day-to-day lives if adjustments aren't made. 

In the paper, Agnew suggests that the disruption in time-keeping methods could "pose an unprecedented problem for computer network timing." Financial markets and modern air traffic control are among the sectors that depend on a standardized clock. 

The melting ice caps have already caused sea levels to rise, making coastal and island communities even more vulnerable to extreme weather events that have become increasingly frequent and severe as a result of rising temperatures. 

What can be done to help? 

Creative thinking and new technologies can help mitigate the effects of rising sea levels and extreme weather. Some developers have designed floating buildings that are able to ride the changing tides, while others have focused on erosion control and land reclamation

To limit the impacts of a warming planet, though, the majority of the scientific community agrees that the most important step is phasing out coal, oil, and gas as energy sources. 

Signing up for a community solar program, weatherizing your house, and unplugging unused electronics are all ways to reduce harmful pollution generated by dirty fuels and add money back to your wallet. 

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