The Earth has started spinning faster – what does it all mean?

As scientists consider removing a second from their atomic clocks for the first time, others warn it could cause widespread disturbance

On a normal day, the Earth spins at around 1,000 miles per hour, or 460 meters per second (measured at the equator). On June 29, 2022, however, scientists measured the shortest day since records began in the 1960s – Earth had cut 1.59 milliseconds from its usual time, and almost kept doing it again on the 26th. July, when it lost 1.5 milliseconds.

Apparently the Earth has been accelerating for a few years now. In 2020, he set new records no less than 28 times, according to Time and date, although the last record was set in 2005. This trend is expected to continue into 2022, but scientists still disagree on why the Earth’s rotation is accelerating. Is he possessed by demonic energy? Offset by the Large Hadron Collider? Accelerated by the climate crisis? (Warning: only one of these theories has real scientific support.)

A bigger question for us, perhaps, is whether it even matters that we spin milliseconds faster when floating in space. How will it affect our daily life if we keep accelerating? Will we be liquefied by centrifugal force? Probably not, but it could have unexpected side effects, ranging from time management inconveniences to Year 2000-like bugs in the systems that keep society afloat.

Below, we explore some theories about why the Earth is accelerating and dig deeper into the effects it’s likely to have in the near future.

THE ‘CHANDLER WOBBLE’

One possible explanation for Earth’s recent acceleration is a deviation of the planet’s axis that was first discovered in 1891. Named the “Chandler Wobble” – after astronomer Seth Carlo Chandler – it spins essentially around the fact that the Earth’s poles move a few meters in 433 days.

From 2017 to 2020, however, Earth wobbled much less, a change that coincides with when the days began to get shorter. Some scientists have suggested that the Chandler Wobble’s disappearance is linked to the acceleration of Earth’s rotation, although others have dismissed the theory – the jury is still out.

THE CLIMATE CRISIS

The speed at which the Earth spins is affected by all of its separate parts,including its inner and outer layers, tides, ocean levels and climate. One hypothesis of the recent acceleration stems from the fact that some of these parts are rapidly changing due to the climate crisis.

As the ice caps melt at each of the Earth’s poles, they exert less pressure on the top and bottom of the planet. This apparently changes the general shape of the earth’s crust from an oblate spheroid (a slightly crushed sphere) to something closer to a properly round sphere. Because the Earth’s mass would then be closer to its center, its rotational speed would increase – just as if you were spinning in a chair, reaching out your arms will slow you down and drawing them in will speed you up.

WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO?

A few milliseconds might not seem like a lot, but it all adds up. In 2016, for example, a study by astronomers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich found that the Earth’s rotation had changed (in fact, slowed down) by about six hours over the past 2,740 years. To keep up with this fluctuation, scientists often have to adjust their atomic clocks.

In fact, the timekeepers have would have added 27 “leap seconds” since 1972, to account for the long-term slowing of the Earth’s rotation (thanks to the Moon) and to keep the digital world in sync with the actual length of Earth’s days. Now that the Earth is speeding up after decades of slowing down, however, they face the daunting prospect of having to remove (or “drop”) a second from global time.

WEIRD SECONDS HAVE RIPPLE EFFECTS

Because our technology infrastructure is so dependent on a universally agreed upon time, leap seconds have often disrupted businesses, technologies, and entire industries that rely on regular, incredibly accurate timekeeping.

Meta, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon — backed by French and American timekeepers — have even collectively launched a public effort to phase out the leap second altogether by 2022, claiming the practice causes more trouble than it’s worth. See: the massive Reddit outage in 2012and the massive Cloudflare problem in 2017.

“Leap second events have caused problems across the industry and continue to pose many risks,” Meta says. Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi in a July 25 blog post. “As an industry, we run into problems every time a leap second is introduced. And because it’s such a rare event, it devastates the community every time it happens.

“The impact of a negative leap second has never been tested on a large scale” – Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi

WHAT IF WE LOSE A SECOND?

Timekeepers have never had to account for Earth’s acceleration before, and responding to this rare situation with a “falling second” would be a world first. Needless to say, this opens up a whole new realm of possibilities for causing the kind of disruption typically caused by leap seconds.

In reality, no one really seems to know what the extent or nature of the damage would be if the timekeepers took a second off for the first time. “The impact of a negative leap second has never been tested on a large scale,” say Obleukhov and Byagowi. “This could have a devastating effect on software that relies on timers or schedulers.”

What does it mean for us if the Earth’s rotation continues to accelerate? It’s hard to say. Perhaps our desire to keep up will usher in a wave of chaos in the tech industry and bring us back to the technological dark ages. Maybe we’ll find a new way to make up the difference. More likely, we’ll lose access to Reddit for a few hours and then everything will be normal, because all the time is made up anyway.



The Earth has started spinning faster – what does it all mean?

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