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What is a leap second?

Civil time is occasionally adjusted by one-second increments to ensure that the difference between a uniform time scale defined by atomic clocks (TAI) does not differ from the Earth's rotational time by more than 0.9 seconds. Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), an atomic time, is this adjusted time scale and it forms the basis for our civil time.

In 1956, following several years of work, two astronomers at the U. S. Naval Observatory (USNO) and two astronomers at the National Physical Laboratory (Teddington, England) determined the relationship between the frequency of the Cesium atom (the standard of time) and the rotation of the Earth at a particular epoch. As a result, they defined the second of atomic time as the length of time required for 9 192 631 770 cycles of the Cesium atom at zero magnetic field. The second thus defined was equivalent to the second defined by the fraction 1 / 31 556 925.9747 of the year 1900. The atomic second was set equal, then, to an average second of Earth rotation time near the end of the 19th century.

The Rapid Service/Prediction Center of the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS), located at the U.S. Naval Observatory, monitors the Earth's rotation. Part of its mission involves the determination of a time scale based on the current rate of the rotation of the Earth. UT1 is the non-uniform time based on the Earth's rotation.

The Earth is constantly undergoing a deceleration caused by the braking action of the ocean tides. Through the use of ancient observations of eclipses, it is possible to determine the deceleration of the Earth to be roughly 2 milliseconds per day per century. This is an effect which causes the Earth's rotational time to slow with respect to the atomic clock time. Since it has been about 1 century since the defining epoch (i.e., the duration since 1900), the difference has accumulated to roughly 2 milliseconds per day. Other factors also affect the Earth's dynamics, some in unpredictable ways, so that it is necessary to monitor the Earth's rotation continuously.

In order to keep the cumulative difference in UT1-UTC less than 0.9 seconds, a leap second is inserted periodically in the atomic UTC time scale to decrease the difference between the two. This leap second can be either positive or negative depending on the Earth's rotation. Since the first leap second in 1972, all leap seconds have been positive (click here for a list of all announced leap seconds). This reflects the general slowing trend of the Earth due to tidal braking.

Confusion sometimes arises over the misconception that the occasional insertion of leap seconds every few years indicates that the Earth should stop rotating within a few millennia. The confusion arises because some mistake leap seconds as a measure of the rate at which the Earth is slowing. The one-second increments are, however, indications of the accumulated difference in time between the two systems. As an example, the situation is similar to what would happen if a person owned a watch that lost two seconds per day. If it were set to a perfect clock today, the watch would be found to be slow by two seconds tomorrow. At the end of a month, the watch will be roughly a minute in error (thirty days of the two second error accumulated each day). The person would then find it convenient to reset the watch by one minute to have the correct time again.

This scenario is analogous to that encountered with the leap second. The difference is that instead of resetting the clock that is running slow, we choose to adjust the clock that is keeping a uniform, precise time. The reason for this is that we can change the time of an atomic clock while it is not possible to alter the Earth's rotational speed to match the atomic clocks. Currently the Earth runs slow at roughly 2 milliseconds per day. After 500 days, the difference between the Earth rotation time and the atomic time would be one second. Instead of allowing this to happen a leap second is inserted to bring the two times closer together.

The decision of when to introduce a leap second in UTC is the responsibility of the International Earth Rotation Service (IERS). According to international agreements, first preference is given to the opportunities at the end of December and June, and second preference to those at the end of March and September. Since the system was introduced in 1972, only dates in June and December have been used.

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