Leap Second: Here’s Why We May See More Such ‘Delays’ In Our Time Every Year

The Coordinated Universal Time or UTC will halt the transition of the clocks to 1st July for just a second at midnight. While the “leap second” is merely a technical formality, its frequency could rise in the future, causing glitches in computers that are not trained like humans to understand the time or the delay.

Though it is unlikely the leap second might bring about the collapse that the Y2K was supposed to cause, it is going to be a pain for computer programmers and code writers to factor in this unpredictable extra time. The leap second is a culmination of all the minor delays the earth encountered while rotating around itself, said NASA’s Daniel MacMillan.

“Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing down a bit, so leap seconds are a way to account for that.”

Leap seconds have been around since 1972, when scientists discovered the slight decrease in the earth’s rotation. But, these leap seconds have become less common in the last few years. Our earth takes about 0.002 seconds more each day to rotate around itself. Once these minor delays add up, they are cumulatively applied as the leap second.

Unfortunately, though we haven’t needed as many leap seconds lately, their need may be profound in the near future, primarily because of a spanking new clock that NASA is deploying. We owe the leap second to a group in the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service that manages the UTC1. The current method of measuring UTC1 is accurate to at least 3 millionths of a second. However, NASA wants more accuracy and hence is working on a new system that’s expected to have a precision better than 0.5 millionths of a second.

This hyper-accurate method of calculating time may cause an uptick in leap seconds to match our clocks up with the Earth. Needless to say, computer systems aren’t designed well to handle this unpredictable function of time. We, as humans, may accept the concept of an added second, but for a computer system, 60 seconds comprises a minute, 60 minutes an hour, and 24 hours a day. These electro-mechanical and electronic brains aren’t designed to simply adjust an extra second that may sneak into the time, said John Lowe, a group leader in the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Time and Frequency Services division.

“The leap second is a hiccup in the time scale that’s not predictable. If you’re writing code right now you know when every leap day is going to occur all the way into the future. But leap seconds can’t be predicted. There’s five or six months of advanced notice, but that can be a problem for long-term programs that are already written.”

Fortunately, as the Y2K hype proved, computers are smarter than we give them credit for. Perhaps these minor delays could be taken into the stride by these machines just as we humans do.

[Image Credit | Guillaume Souvant / Getty Images]