While the earth did indeed do that on June 29thsince the adoption of the atomic clock standard in 1970 — at 1.59 milliseconds less than 24 hours — scientists say this is a normal fluctuation.
Still, news of the faster rotation sparked misleading social media posts about the measurement’s importance, prompting some to raise concerns about its implications.
“They brought the news that the Earth is spinning faster, which seems like it should be bigger news,” claimed a tweet that was shared nearly 35,000 times. “We are so impervious to catastrophe right now that it’s so good what the future holds.”
Some Twitterers responded to these tweets with jokes, but also with skepticism about the size of the measurement. However, others were concerned about the consequences this would have for them.
But scientists told the AP that Earth’s rotational speed fluctuates constantly and that the record-setting measurement is nothing to panic about.
“It’s very normal,” said Stephen Merkowitz, a scientist and project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “There’s nothing magical or special about this. It’s not such an extreme data point that all the scientists wake up and go, what’s going on?”
Andrew Ingersoll, professor emeritus of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, agreed with this assessment.
“Earth’s rotation varies by milliseconds for many reasons,” he wrote in an email to the AP. “None of them are cause for concern.”
The slight increase in revs also does not mean that the days go by noticeably faster. Merkowitz explained that standardized time was once determined by how long it takes for the Earth to rotate once on its axis — generally considered 24 hours. But because that speed fluctuates slightly, that number of milliseconds can vary.
Scientists began working with atomic clocks in the 1960s to measure time more accurately. The official length of a day, scientifically speaking, now compares the speed of one full rotation of the Earth to the time it takes atomic clocks, Merkowitz said. If those measurements are out of sync, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, an organization that tracks global time, can correct the difference by adding a leap second.
Some engineers are against the introduction of a leap second because it can lead to large-scale and devastating technical problems. Meta engineers Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi wrote a blog post about it for Meta, supporting an industry-wide effort to halt future leap second introductions.
“Negative leap second handling has been supported for a long time, and companies like Meta often run simulations of this event,” they told CBS News. “However, it has never been widely verified and is likely to lead to unpredictable and devastating outages around the world.”
Despite the recent decline in the length of a day in recent years, the days have become even longer over the course of several centuries, according to Judah Levine, a physicist in the time and frequency division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He added that the current trend wasn’t predicted, but he agreed it’s nothing to worry about.
Many variables affect Earth’s rotation, such as influences from other planets or the moon, as well as how Earth’s mass redistributes itself. For example, the melting of ice sheets or weather conditions that create a denser atmosphere, Merkowitz said.
But the kind of event that would displace enough mass to affect Earth’s rotation in a way that humans can perceive would be something horrific like the planet being hit by a giant meteor, Merkowitz said.
Caitlin O’Kane contributed to this report.