How can climate change affect the earth’s rotation – and subsequently time itself?

Rising sea levels mean we are going to have a negative leap second
Rising sea levels mean we are going to have a negative leap second

Global warming has slowed down our planet's rotation, which may affect time in the future.

The impact of human-made emissions on our planet is impossible to ignore but this is the first time that scientists have discovered its consequences for timekeeping.

According to a study published by Nature, sea levels are rising at an unprecedented rate due to melting ice, which will profoundly influence our planet’s functions. Higher sea levels have slowed down Earth’s rotation because they change the concentration of the plant’s mass, making it spin less quickly than it used to.

“Enough ice has melted to move sea level enough that we can actually see the rate of the Earth’s rotation has been affected,” Duncan Agnew, author of the study said.

While people on the planet aren’t going to notice any difference in their days, scientists have raised concerns about its impact on our clocks in the future.

The connection between sea levels and the Earth’s rotation

A lot of factors can affect the speed of our planet’s rotation, including ocean tides and the disappearance of ice caps.

According to the scientist behind the study, the connection between sea levels and the Earth’s rotation can be likened to a figure skater.

"If you have a skater who starts spinning, if she lowers her arms or stretches out her legs, she will slow down,” he explained.

When skaters pull their arms in, they spin faster – the opposite of what’s happening to our planet because of climate change.

“It’s kind of impressive, even to me, we’ve done something that measurably changes how fast the Earth rotates,” Agnew added. “Things are happening that are unprecedented.”

We need to subtract a second in 2029 (PA)
We need to subtract a second in 2029 (PA)

The future of time itself

Because of our planet’s slower rotation, our clocks will change in the future later than expected.

Clocks will have to skip a second in five years to keep time on track, known as a “negative leap second".  This means that in 2029, one minute will skip the 59th second. If the planet continued spinning at its previous rate, this would have needed to be done several years earlier.

According to the study, meteorologists may welcome the delay in the negative leap second because they tend to lead to “major failures in computing systems”.

However, the negative impacts of rising seas still outweigh the added time it gives scientists to prepare for a negative leap second.

Climate change’s impact on our planet

It’s not just time or the Earth’s rotation that emissions are affecting. Rising seas have been linked to the displacement of millions of people, increased flooding and more extreme weather conditions.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres previously warned that disappearing coastlines will lead to “a mass exodus of entire populations on a biblical scale”. Climate refugees are now being counted in their millions, and this is set to grow.

Agnew hopes that the study’s results, which show the actual human impact on our planet’s movement, may prompt more to take action.

“I’ve been around climate change for a long time, and I can worry about it plenty well without this, but it’s yet another way of impressing upon people just how big a deal this is,” he said.