Days Are Shorter and Big Tech Hates It
Fri Jul 29
If it feels like time is flying by, it is! … Kind of. Although it’s imperceptible to us, the Earth has been spinning faster — meaning a day is not quite a full 24 hours. On June 29th of this year, the Earth did its quickest rotation in recorded history at 1.59 milliseconds shy of 24 hours.
And it seems Earth has broken a number of speed records since 2020 — which is, funnily enough, the very year many wished would fly by. In fact, 2020 included 28 of the shortest days since the 1960s. But what’s causing these changes in Earth’s spin? In short, the Earth itself. Just as a figure skater spins faster by pulling in their limbs, mass that pulls towards the Earth’s core will spin the Earth faster. Land, ocean, and wind are like the Earth’s limbs.
This means that extreme weather events will slow or quicken the Earth’s rotation. For instance, the 9.1 magnitude Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004 pulled enough mass towards the Earth’s core to shorten the day by three microseconds. Conversely, strong winds in El Niño years act as arms spreading out to lengthen days. And once the day’s length (measured by high precision telescopes) differs from the atomic clocks by >0.9 seconds, the atomic clocks get adjusted with a leap second, ensuring the clock matches the astronomically defined day.
But adding a leap second is not just simple math. From air traffic control centers to Reddit servers to the stock market, computers everywhere rely on the Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) that is defined by the atomic clocks. When those clocks are adjusted, computers could suddenly have to deal with a repeated timestamp or mismatch between internal clocks and UTC. This could cause minor issues with scheduled programs or complex ones that cascade into system crashes. It all depends on how time is constrained, used, and referenced by the code. And there aren’t good solutions so much as uncomfortable workarounds. So with more extreme weather and the looming threat of the first ever negative leap second that few are prepared to handle, many are crying for the end.
Just last month, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Google began petitioning to scrap leap seconds altogether, following in the footsteps of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Bureau International de Poids et Mesures (BIPM). They say that the leap second is now doing more harm than good, but proponents of the leap second argue major systems (e.g. antennas that track satellites) already deal with the leap second just fine and to change them would be costly when everyone else can work around the leap second.
BELOW THE FOLD BYTES
UPS Workers “Sent Out to Die” in High Heat
With record heat becoming more commonplace everywhere due to climate change, those working outside of air conditioned spaces are taking on more than discomfort. Trucks have reached 117 degrees when the outside temperature was 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Some have even seen trucks hit 154 degrees. Demanding work in these sauna-like trucks have resulted in heat illness, putting some workers out of commission for weeks and others in the hospital. Cases are likely underreported as well. Heat can also lead to fatal conditions but will unlikely be listed as the cause of death in an autopsy. Now, unions are making demands for safer conditions while OSHA starts on new heat-specific protections.
Not a Rainy Day Fund But a Fiery Day Fund
Businesses are waking up to the fact that wildfires are now an anytime, anywhere deal. This has led to precautionary landscaping, bigger insurance budgets, and even changes in construction materials. For instance, a drive-thru restaurant might do away with plants where a cigarette flung from a car window could land and start a fire. But some things are just out of budget. Californians are insuring properties with multiple carriers as no single one was willing to carry such a large risk on its own. Premiums are pricey, too, with payments costing 300% to 400% more than last year. Others are self-insuring or going without insurance by setting aside funds for that fiery day.
🎬 Action of the Week
At this point, we all know what needs to be done to keep the climate crisis from getting worse. So, why not take a moment to check out how tricky time really is, or why computers and the weird way we represent time are a bit incompatible.
THIS WEEK'S SOURCES
- IFL Science: Earth records shortest day 1 week old | 2 minutes long
- Time and Date: 28 shortest days 9 days old | 3 minutes long
- The Guardian: NASA and scientists 4 days old | 4 minutes long
- Environmental Defense Fund: Climate change & extreme weather 2 minutes long
- Yahoo! Money: Tech giant opposition 10 days old | 2 minute read
- Wired: Reddit’s leap outage 10 years ago | 8 minutes long
ASCII-ING ABOUT THE NEWS
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Who needs time to be tied to the Earth’s rotation? We have 24/7 sun via smartphone anyway.
Art Credit: Joan G. Stark