November 28, 2022

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Humanity will stop using the leap second.  It is not known what will replace it

Humanity will stop using the leap second. It is not known what will replace it

The existence of the leap second can cause problems for many systems that depend on accurate and uninterrupted timekeeping – satellite navigation, communications, commerce and space travel.

The decision to abandon the second leap by 2035 was adopted at the General Conference on Weights and Measures, which takes place every four years in Versailles. Russia voted against this change, hoping that the change will enter into force from 2040. The year 2035 was a compromise, some countries proposed 2025 or 2030. The initiators of the abolition of the leap second were, among others, the United States and France.

With the advent of atomic clocks, the era of very accurate timekeeping, rather than counting in seconds, began. It turns out that the atomic time does not agree with the time of the Earth’s rotation. To solve this problem, leap seconds were introduced in 1972. Since then, they have been added 27 times, the last time in 2016. Now it was decided to abandon them, but not completely.

At the Paris meeting, it was decided to allow more than a second of difference between atomic and astronomical time. “The biggest difference hasn’t been identified yet,” says Judah Levine, a physicist at the US National Institutes of Standards and Technology. It was he – together with Patricia Tavella, Director of the Time Department of BIPM – who over the years developed the outlines of the decision that had just been adopted.

So we are now facing further negotiations, where countries and scientists will determine how much discrepancy between atomic and astronomical time can be allowed. Levine says it might be accurate, for example. The leap minute must be entered once every 50-100 years. At the same time, he asserts that preserving the concept of Universal Time (UTC) is important because it was established by the international community, the community at BIPM.

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The only widely used alternative to world time is GPS time, which is governed by atomic clocks. However, as Levine notes, this timekeeping is run by the US military without oversight from the international community.