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earth's rotation, atomic clock, climate change
via Pixabay

Star trails created by the Earth's rotation.

It can be distressing to think about the state of the planet. The climate is changing at a rapid pace, species are being lost at an alarming rate and the world’s oceans are being filled with plastic.

But as legendary TV pitchman Billy Mays famously said, “Oh wait, there’s more!”

The planet’s rotation is speeding up, creating shorter days.

On June 29, 2022, the Earth had its shortest day since the 1960s when scientists began measuring the length of a day using high-precision atomic clocks, The Guardian reported. It was the shortest day in the lives of most people on the planet although nobody noticed it because it was only 1.59 milliseconds shorter than expected.


The change in the Earth’s rotation comes after years of slowing. The International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) accounted for the slower spin by adding leap seconds as recently as December 31, 2016.

"Since 2016 the Earth started to accelerate," Lomonosov Moscow State University scientist Leonid Zotov told CBS News. "This year it rotates quicker than in 2021 and 2020."

If the Earth continues to move faster than our clocks, things will become out of sync.

As the number of shorter days has increased over the past few years, scientists are now considering removing a second off the atomic clock. "Since we can not change the clock arrows attached to the Earth rotation, we adjust the atomic clock scale," Zotov said.

This sounds like a great idea in practice, but tech experts warn that it may lead to devastating consequences. "The impact of a negative leap second has never been tested on a large scale; it could have a devastating effect on the software relying on timers or schedulers," Meta engineers Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi wrote on the company blog. "In any case, every leap second is a major source of pain for people who manage hardware infrastructures."

Messing with the time on global technology seems like it could cause significant problems. But didn’t a lot of people predict that when the year changed from 1999 to 2000 it would create a global disaster known as Y2K, which never happened?

The big question is, why is the globe spinning so fast?

Forbes senior contributor Jamie Carter says there are multiple reasons why the Earth's rotation is ramping up. He points to glacier melt that puts more pressure on the poles, motion in our planet’s inner molten core, seismic activity and the movement of the planet’s geographical poles across its surface.

Obleukhov and Byagowi believe the rotation change is a symptom of climate change. They speculate that it may be caused by the melting and refreezing of the ice caps on the world’s tallest mountains.

"This phenomenon can be simply visualized by thinking about a spinning figure skater, who manages angular velocity by controlling their arms and hands," they told CBS News. "As they spread their arms the angular velocity decreases, preserving the skater's momentum. As soon as the skater tucks their arms back in, the angular velocity increases. Same happens here at this moment because of rising temperatures on Earth. Ice caps melt and lead to angular velocity increase."

The good news is that the Earth is spinning faster and no one seems to notice. However, for those of you who like to worry, Popular Science speculates that if Earth’s rotation sped up by one mile an hour, sea levels would rise and telecommunications satellites would stop functioning. It currently spins at about 1,000 miles per hour at the equator.

If Earth's rotation sped up to 17,641 miles per hour you’d become weightless, according to NASA astronomer Sten Odenwald. That would be cool, but you probably would have drowned before that happened.

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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