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The ‘leap second’ survives, at least for another three years

Officials at the International Telecommunication Union, part of the United Nations which sets the world's clocks, postponed a decision on whether to abolish the 'leap second' at a meeting in Geneva this week.
Leap second 2012 01 20Enlarge
A man looks at the Seine river through the giant clock of the Orsay Museum in Paris, France, on Oct. 12, 2011. (PIERRE VERDY /AFP/Getty Images)

Officials at the International Telecommunication Union, part of the United Nations which sets the world's clocks, postponed a decision on whether to abolish the 'leap second,' after delegates at a meeting in Geneva this week could not reach a consensus, the Telegraph reported.

The International Telecommunication Union ordered a panel of experts to study the issue further and will revisit the matter in 2015, the New York Times reported.

Leap seconds were created in 1972 to keep time tracked by atomic clocks and time measured by the Earth’s rotation in sync, according to BBC News. The Earth’s daily rotation is not regular, so some days are a few milliseconds longer or shorter than others. When the two measures drift 0.9 seconds apart, the International Earth Rotation Service adds a leap second to match them up again, according to BBC News. A leap second is due to be added to the clock this year, on June 30, the Telegraph reported.

According to the New York Times:

Opponents of leap seconds, led by the United States, say the sporadic addition of these timekeeping hiccups is a potential nightmare for computer networks that depend on precise time to coordinate communications. But nations like Britain that wish to keep the current system say that eliminating leap seconds might create bigger problems.

Supporters of the leap second say that that the Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing, making the days longer, so we need leap seconds to keep noon at midday rather than sliding into the morning, the New York Times reported.

France and Germany have joined the US in wanting to abolish the leap second; China and Canada want to keep it, according to BBC News.

"A decision to stop using leap seconds to keep UTC aligned with mean solar time would be perhaps the most fundamental change to timekeeping for hundreds of years,” Peter Whibberley, senior research scientist in time and frequency at the National Physical Laboratory, in Teddington, UK, told BBC News. "For the first time, civil time worldwide would be based purely on man-made clocks and no longer tied closely to the Earth's rotation."

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