On New Year’s Eve 2016, revelers will get one more second to continue the party. Timekeepers from the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS) have announced a leap second will be added to December 31.Before the clock strikes midnight, it will read 11:59:60 instead of 11:59:59. Since the spin of the Earth varies over time, leap seconds are sometimes added to regulate Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which is used worldwide to keep clocks accurate.

Precise measurement

Atomic clocks are important for keeping UTC correct. These clocks use the consistent frequency of microwaves released by atoms to measure time.

These clocks are so precise, they will not gain or lose a second for billions of years. According to an atomic clock, one Earth day equals 864,000 seconds.

Keeping time accurate

Since the planet’s rotation is not so consistent, the UTC needs to be occasionally adjusted. As the Earth turns on its axis, the moon’s gravitation pull causes a slight slowing of rotation. The tug from our nearest neighbor creates tidal friction and slows the planet’s spin by two-thousandths of a second each day. Other factors, like very strong earthquakes and movement of the Earth’s core, can also change the rotation rate of the planet.

Leap seconds controversy

Leap seconds can wreak havoc on computers and mobile phones not designed to anticipate them.

As such, many are calling for the elimination of them. Without these extra seconds, clocks would be two to three minutes out of sync with the sun by 2100. However, attendees at the Radiocommunications Conference in Geneva voted to postpone the issue until 2023.

IERS announcement

To avoid potential headaches from the leap second adjustment, the IERS always announces the one-second addition six months in advance and they are always added either June 30 or December 31.

In the past 44 years, the agency has added 26 seconds to the clock, with the most recent one on June 30, 2015. No seconds have ever been removed as a result.

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