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Here’s Why 2016’s “Leap Second” Really Matters

What will you do with all that extra time?

A lot can happen in a second: According to New Scientist, 2.3 million emails are sent, more than 48,000 Google searches are performed in that fraction of time, and Warren Buffet will make an extra $402.


While that blip may feel like nothing, keeping our collective seconds in sync with the Earth’s rotation is essential for us to literally be on time. Which explains why in 2016, the world will be “gifted” a leap second.

According to the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, the atomic clock and the observed rotation of the Earth are once again slightly off. The clock, as PC Magazine reports, uses cesium atoms to determine the exact length of a second. The atomic clock will keep ticking on time for at least 300 million years.

Science writer Dan Falk, who wrote the 2008 book In Search of Time, tells National Geographic,“If you don’t insert a leap second, eventually time based on those atomic clocks will be out of whack with solar time. It’s not a perfect solution. But Aristotle and Heraclitus were arguing about [time] 2,500 years ago, and we’re still arguing about it.”

What would happen if we didn’t observe this extra nugget of time? According to National Geographic, by 2100 we’d be off the atomic clock by a few minutes. By 2700, we’d have an extra half hour each day.

So how is this slowing of the Earth happening? On June 30, 2015, when the last leap second occurred, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson told Space.com:

"The moon is slowing us down. It's tugging on us. If it ultimately succeeds at this, Earth's rotation will be as slow as the lunar month, and we will always show the same face to one another in what is called a 'double tidal lock… But if you do the math, it will take longer than the lifespan of the sun for the moon to succeed at this. So it's not something you should worry about at this point."

Space.com also notes, along with the moon, other factors including the “sloshing of the planet's molten core, the rolling of the oceans, the melting of polar ice,” all effect our solar gravity.

And while a mere second to get things done and stay on atomic time sounds great in theory, in practice it can really screw things up. As The Verge reports, leap seconds can wreak havoc on computer systems that were not built to account for extra time. The Verge adds, some people are even calling for an end to the leap second, however, “In November, representatives at the World Radiocommunications Conference in Geneva decided to postpone a decision on whether to keep leap seconds to 2023.”

According to the U.S. Navy, there have been 27 positive leap seconds since 1972, when the very first leap second occurred to help us all stay on time. So, what will you do with your extra second on Earth?

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