Leap second: There's an extra 1/60th of a minute today, go nuts!

Leap second
CC BY 2.0 John Tenniel/Wikimedia Commons

What will you do with your extra second? We've got some ideas.

Remember the mayhem caused by Y2K, when we were all going to be unceremoniously thrust back into the year 1900? Well we don’t think that this year’s leap second will have quite the same effect, but NASA does note that adding a second to the mix can confuse our electronic overlords: “Leap seconds have created challenges for some computer systems and generated some calls to abandon them altogether.”

But regardless, we have an extra second! Today there will be 24 hours ... and one second ... in the day. For whom do we have to thank for this?

“Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing down a bit, so leap seconds are a way to account for that,” said Daniel MacMillan of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. So, thank you, planet Earth.

According to our generally accepted time standard – Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) – a day lasts 86,400 seconds, by the clock. Yet the average solar day (how long it takes the Earth to rotate) is about 86,400.002 seconds because the old gal is slowing down due to a gravitational free-for-all between Earth, the moon and the sun. Scientists estimate that the mean solar day hasn’t been 86,400 seconds since the year 1820 or so, says NASA.

This difference of 2 milliseconds – a teeny-weeny two thousandths of a second – is not that notable on its own. But added up daily it turns into almost a whole second during the course of a year. Yet the whole thing is completely unpredictable; the Earth is slowing down ever so slightly, but the length of each specific day varies in ways impossible to anticipate. Such a mystery, she is.

Leap seconds were first added to atomic clocks in 1972, and until 1999 were generally added about one time per year. But they have become increasingly infrequent – today’s will be just the fourth since 2000. The clock generally moves from 23:59:59 to 00:00:00, marking a new day. But tonight, UTC will move from 23:59:59 to 23:59:60, and then to 00:00:00 on July 1. We always want more time in the day, today we have it. What will you do with your extra second? Here’s what we’re thinking to do with ours:

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