Earth spinning faster and recording its shortest day is no reason to panic, scientists say
While the Earth on June 29 has effectivelySince the adoption of the atomic clock standard in 1970 – at 1.59 milliseconds less than 24 hours – scientists say this is a normal fluctuation.
Yet news of the faster turnover has led to misleading social media posts about the significance of the measure, leading some to worry about its implications.
“They announced that the Earth is spinning faster, which seems like bigger news,” said a tweet shared nearly 35,000 times. “We’re so numb to the disaster at this point it’s like what’s next.”
Some Twitter users responded to those tweets with jokes, as well as skepticism about the scale of the measure. Others, however, expressed concerns about how it would affect them.
But scientists told the AP that Earth’s rotational speed is constantly fluctuating and the record-breaking measurement is no cause for panic.
“It’s a completely normal thing,” said Stephen Merkowitz, a scientist and project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “There’s nothing magical or special about it. It’s not such an extreme data point that all the scientists are going to wake up and go, what’s going on?”
Andrew Ingersoll, professor emeritus of planetary sciences at the California Institute of Technology, agrees with this assessment.
“The Earth’s rotation varies in milliseconds for many reasons,” he wrote in an email to the AP. “None of them are of concern.”
The slight increase in rotation speed does not mean that the days pass noticeably faster either. Merkowitz explained that standardized time was once determined by the time it took Earth to once rotate on its axis – widely understood to be 24 hours. But since this speed fluctuates slightly, this number can vary by a few milliseconds.
Scientists in the 1960s began working with atomic clocks to measure time more accurately. The official length of a day, scientifically speaking, now compares the speed of one full Earth rotation to the time taken by atomic clocks, Merkowitz said. If these measurements are too out of sync, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, an organization that maintains world time, can correct the discrepancy by adding a leap second.
Some engineers object to the introduction of a leap second, as it could lead to large-scale and devastating technological problems. Meta engineers Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi wrote a blog post about it for Meta, which supports an industry-wide effort to stop future leap second introductions.
“Handling of negative leap seconds has been supported for a long time, and companies like Meta often run simulations of this event,” they told CBS News. “However, this has never been verified on a large scale and will likely lead to unpredictable and devastating outages across the world.”
Despite recent decreases in the length of a day in recent years, days have actually grown longer over several centuries, according to Judah Levine, a physicist with the Time and Frequency Division of the National Institute of standards and technology. He added that the current trend was not expected, but agreed there was no need to worry.
Many variables impact Earth’s rotation, such as influences from other planets or the moon, as well as how Earth’s mass redistributes. For example, melting ice caps or weather events that create a denser atmosphere, according to Merkowitz.
But the kind of event that would move enough mass to affect Earth’s rotation in a way humans notice would be something terrible like the planet being hit by a giant meteor, Merkowitz said.
Caitlin O’Kane contributed to this report.