The Leap Second: Will The World End Tonight?

As the end of today comes to a close something peculiar will happen, it won’t end. At least not for another second. Today, Tuesday 30th June 2015 will be the 26th occurrence of a Leap Second since its introduction in 1972. The clocks will read 23:59:60 and the world may implode.

Just as the leap year uses an extra day to catch up on the astronomical year the leap second is going to yet again be implemented to bring the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) (the time the world uses across the board to get stuff done) up to scratch with Universal Time (UT1). Scientists have been throwing a second here and there at us since 1972 and so far it has caused a bit of trouble for the running of everyday things.

In 1972 the Masters of Time (a better name I came up with for the Bureau International de l’Heure (BIH)) decided to rectify the offset in the UTC by adding a second on June 30th and again on December 31st. Since then we have added 25 seconds (the 26th being added tonight) to keep our time and the “real” Universal time on par.

Leap Second Doctor Who -
How I envisage the Masters of Time

The reasons for a change in the time on Earth and the time in the Universe is credited to the astronomical wonder of our Earth’s spin. Our planet is spinning; I really hope you knew that, otherwise I just blew your mind. The speed at which our planet is spinning is slowing however, due to many factors. Tidal friction is a big one but also how the crust moves and magma currents all play a vital role in the inner-turmoil of the Earth’s rotation. Tidal friction causes not only a transfer of momentum from the Earth to the Moon (slowing down the Earth and speeding up the Moon) but it is causing the Moon to slowly move further from us. This in turn makes a difference to the length of a month and this in turn is affecting the length of the day, which makes sense. So we add a second here and there and it all works itself out. Simple.

The not so simple bit is why we have scientists. The Masters of Time (now the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) since January 1, 1988) have to deal with the fact that the Earth’s rotation speed changes irregularly and so they have to add the seconds irregularly also. Sometimes it has to be added on June 30th (like today), sometimes it has to be added at the end of the year, sometimes not at all. They wait for the offset to be over 0.6 and under 0.9 seconds as to not let that 1 second difference ever occur. So again, seems simple enough. We have the scientists to deal with this stuff. Do I need to worry about it?

Well yes and no. You don’t really have to care about anything, that’s your prerogative. The world on a whole however have a lot of thinking and problem solving to deal with thanks to this one little second.

The last time a leap second was introduced into the UTC, June 30th 2012, loads of stuff went tits up. That scientific speak for loads of stuff went tits up (scientists are funny like that). Due to the additional second being added in and its irregularity websites and companies alike were inundated with technical problems in a kind of Y2K-ish meltdown. Many programmes were not properly prepared to deal with the additional second on a programming level; Linux and Java scripts especially.

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Not a Happy Camper

In 2012, when the change was made, Reddit, Foursquare, Yelp, StumbleUpon, Mozilla and LinkedIn all suffered crashes. One of the biggest problems occurred in Australia where the check-in system from Qantus airlines went caput and they had to ground 400 flights and book everyone manually. The financial sector also struggle to deal with this as the software used is vulnerable to the problems caused by the leap second. At the end of today (June 30th 2015) the Intercontinental Exchange, parent body to 7 clearing houses and 11 stock exchanges (including the New York Stock Exchange), is ceasing operations for 61 minutes. These guys set up in 2000 and are big hitters, being backed by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanely, BP and Shell. In other words, all the people you hear about when money is involved. 61 minutes may not be a big deal for some people for this conglomerate it is.

There is still ongoing debate around the globe whether to keep the leap second at all. We will obviously need to rectify the problem somehow (possibly leap hours) but with the irregularity, meaning we can’t possibly tell if a leap second is needed more than 6 months in the future, the problematic headache it causes in computing and economic software is still ongoing.

So will the world be here tomorrow morning? Only time will tell. It probably won’t affect you too much, unless you are flying in Australia. Then it just might.


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