While we were desperate for 2020 to be over and a brand new year to begin, it seems like the Earth had similar plans too. According to scientists, the Earth was recorded to be spinning at a much faster rate than last year. In fact, it is the fastest ever since 1960! The Earth reported around 28 days to be shorter than usual which led scientists to believe that Earth is rotating around it’s axis much quicker than usual, making the day a few milliseconds shorter than it usually is.
If you’re wondering how exactly do experts measure a quantity as small as milliseconds, you’re not alone. Well, atomic clocks are the reason they are able to do that. While the Earth has usually great timing with sticking to a schedule, atomic clocks were invented in the 1960s to judge the exact length of a day. With their help, we now know that on average, with respect to the sun, the Earth rotates once every 86,400 seconds, which equals 24 hours. This is called a ‘mean solar day’. However, these atomic clocks also tell us that a ‘mean solar day’ doesn't always necessarily mean it’s 24 hours long.
Graham Jones and Konstantin Bikos, of TimeandDate.com, said “But it is not perfect,When highly accurate atomic clocks were developed in the 1960s, they showed that the length of a mean solar day can vary by milliseconds (1 millisecond equals 0.001 seconds).” According to them, the Earth is likely to change it's rotation patterns with respect to the movement of its core and also, surprisingly, because of weather and ocean patterns.
This recent acceleration in the spinning of the Earth has led to scientists talking about a ‘negative leap second’ for the first time in history. In the past, Earth would take much longer than 24 hours to completely 1 rotation, this caused scientists to add a leap second to the clocks to make up for this difference. While the addition of a leap second has been done several times in the past (27 to be precise), 2020 would be the first year where a leap second would have to be ‘deducted’ to account for the change.
Physicist Peter Whibberley of the National Physics Laboratory in the U.K., tells The Telegraph “It's quite possible that a negative leap second will be needed if the Earth's rotation rate increases further, but it's too early to say if this is likely to happen”. He also added "There are also international discussions taking place about the future of leap seconds, and it's also possible that the need for a negative leap second might push the decision towards ending leap seconds for good”
If you're wondering if this addition or deletion of a ‘leap second’ would have any significant effect on your daily life, you do not need to worry. In everyday life we rarely have the need for such precise timing but in the fields of astronomy or physicals, these leap seconds are of critical importance which is why they need to be paid attention to. If these astronomical observations are not in sync with our ‘clock time’, errors would be found in astronomy, navigation, spaceflight, but also computer networks for stock markets or energy supply, and so much more.