Earth Is Spinning Faster Than It Used To, And Experts Are Arguing About What to Do Next

planet earth

It sounds like a sequel to 1978’s Superman but it’s a really pressing issue today: the Earth is spinning faster than it used to.

The change in the Earth’s rotation is a small one but big enough that it might lead to a so-called ‘negative leap second’. That means that, a couple of years from now, we might have to ‘lose’ a second from our clocks to account for it.

This comes from a study published this month in Nature. Titled “A global timekeeping problem postponed by global warming” and authored by Duncan Carr Agnew, it links the issue to polar ice melting and global warming. 

From an AP report on the study:

“This is an unprecedented situation and a big deal,” said study lead author Duncan Agnew, a geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s not a huge change in the Earth’s rotation that’s going to lead to some catastrophe or anything, but it is something notable. It’s yet another indication that we’re in a very unusual time.” Ice melting at both of Earth’s poles has been counteracting the planet’s burst of speed and is likely to have delayed this global second of reckoning by about three years, Agnew said.

“We are headed toward a negative leap second,” said Dennis McCarthy, retired director of time for the U.S. Naval Observatory who wasn’t part of the study. “It’s a matter of when.” It’s a complicated situation that involves physics, global power politics, climate change, technology and two types of time. […] McCarthy said the trend toward needing a negative leap second is clear, but he thinks it’s more to do with the Earth becoming more round from geologic shifts from the end of the last ice age.

Three other outside scientists said Agnew’s study makes sense, calling his evidence compelling. But Levine doesn’t think a negative leap second will really be needed. He said the overall slowing trend from tides has been around for centuries and continues, but the shorter trends in Earth’s core come and go. “This is not a process where the past is a good prediction of the future,” Levine said. “Anyone who makes a long-term prediction on the future is on very, very shaky ground.”

As a scifi fan, I can’t say I agree with that last quote necessarily. Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions continue to amaze with their accuracy, and thought leaders like Ray Kurzweil also offer accurate roadmaps. I would love to read a short story about how a single second skipped could lead to something huge though!

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