Earth’s Days Have Been Mysteriously Increasing in Length – Scientists Don’t Know Why


Exact measurements present that Earth’s rotation has been mysteriously slowing down since 2020, making the day longer.

Exact astronomical observations, mixed with atomic clocks, have revealed that the size of a day is all of the sudden getting longer. Scientists don’t know why.

This has important impacts not simply on our timekeeping, but additionally on issues like GPS and different precision applied sciences that govern our trendy life.

Earth’s rotation round its axis has been rushing up over the previous few many years. Since this determines how lengthy a day is, this development has been making our days shorter. In reality, in June 2022 we set a document for the shortest day over the previous half a century or so.

Nonetheless, regardless of this document, since 2020 that regular speedup has curiously switched to a slowdown. Now, days are getting longer once more, and the rationale thus far stays a thriller.

Whereas the clocks in our telephones point out there are precisely 24 hours in a day, the precise time it takes for Earth to finish a single rotation can differ ever so barely. These modifications generally happen over durations of hundreds of thousands of years, and different instances virtually immediately. For instance, even earthquakes and storm occasions can play a job.

It seems {that a} day could be very not often precisely the magic variety of 86,400 seconds.

The ever-changing planet

Earth’s rotation has been slowing down over hundreds of thousands of years attributable to friction results related to the tides pushed by the Moon. That course of provides about 2.three milliseconds to the size of every day each 100 years. Just a few billion years in the past, an Earth day was solely about 19 hours.

For the previous 20,000 years, one other course of has been working in the wrong way, rushing up Earth’s rotation. When the final ice age ended, melting polar ice sheets lowered floor strain, and Earth’s mantle began steadily transferring towards the poles.

Simply as a ballet dancer spins sooner as they create their arms towards their physique – the axis round which they spin – our planet’s spin charge will increase when this mass of mantle strikes nearer to Earth’s axis. This course of has been shortening every day by about 0.6 milliseconds every century.

Over many years and longer, the connection between Earth’s inside and floor comes into play too. Main earthquakes can change the size of day, though usually by small quantities. For instance, the Nice Tōhoku Earthquake of 2011 in Japan, with a magnitude of 8.9, is believed to have sped up Earth’s rotation by a comparatively tiny 1.Eight microseconds.

Aside from these large-scale modifications, over shorter durations climate and local weather even have vital impacts on Earth’s rotation, inflicting variations in each instructions.

The fortnightly and month-to-month tidal cycles transfer mass across the planet, inflicting modifications within the size of day by as much as a millisecond in both route. We are able to see tidal variations in length-of-day information over durations so long as 18.6 years. The motion of our ambiance has a very robust impact, and ocean currents additionally play a job. Seasonal snow cowl and rainfall, or groundwater extraction, alter issues additional.

Why is Earth all of the sudden slowing down?

For the reason that 1960s, when operators of radio telescopes across the planet began to plan methods to concurrently observe cosmic objects like quasars, we’ve got had very exact estimates of Earth’s charge of rotation.


Utilizing radio telescopes to measure Earth’s rotation includes observations of radio sources like quasars. Credit score: NASA Goddard

A comparison between these measurements and an atomic clock has revealed a seemingly ever-shortening length of day over the past few years.

But there’s a surprising reveal once we take away the rotation speed fluctuations we know happen due to the tides and seasonal effects. Despite Earth reaching its shortest day on June 29, 2022, the long-term trajectory seems to have shifted from shortening to lengthening since 2020. This change is unprecedented over the past 50 years.

The reason for this change is not clear. It could be due to changes in weather systems, with back-to-back La Niña events, although these have occurred before. It could be increased melting of the ice sheets, although those have not deviated hugely from their steady rate of melt in recent years. Could it be related to the huge volcano explosion in Tonga injecting huge amounts of water into the atmosphere? Probably not, given that occurred in January 2022.

Scientists have speculated this recent, mysterious change in the planet’s rotational speed is related to a phenomenon called the “Chandler wobble” – a small deviation in Earth’s rotation axis with a period of about 430 days. Observations from radio telescopes also show that the wobble has diminished in recent years. Perhaps the two are linked.

One final possibility, which we think is plausible, is that nothing specific has changed inside or around Earth. It could just be long-term tidal effects working in parallel with other periodic processes to produce a temporary change in Earth’s rotation rate.

Do we need a ‘negative leap second’?

Precisely understanding Earth’s rotation rate is crucial for a host of applications – navigation systems such as GPS wouldn’t work without it. Also, every few years timekeepers insert leap seconds into our official timescales to make sure they don’t drift out of sync with our planet.

If Earth were to shift to even longer days, we may need to incorporate a “negative leap second” – this would be unprecedented, and may break the internet.

The need for negative leap seconds is regarded as unlikely right now. For now, we can welcome the news that – at least for a while – we all have a few extra milliseconds each day.

Written by:

  • Matt King – Director of the ARC Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science, University of Tasmania
  • Christopher Watson – Senior Lecturer, School of Geography, Planning, and Spatial Sciences, University of Tasmania

This article was first published in The Conversation.The Conversation





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