Leap seconds, which for half a century were used to synchronize the Earth’s rotation with atomic clocks, are being phased out. This is a boon for tech giants worried about the technical risks of the mod.
Timekeeping authorities from around the world voted Friday at a meeting of the International Bureau des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) to stop using the time dial.
“The introduction of leap seconds leads to outages that could cause serious failures in critical digital infrastructure,” including satellite navigation systems, communications and power transmission, the International Intellectual Property Office (BIPM) said.
The change will take effect no later than 2035, though it’s possible the group could start sooner. The new policy is designed to last for at least a century.
Timekeeping at this level of precision may sound like a nebulous field of science, but it’s actually very important in our digital age, where computers must constantly keep track of tasks and make sure that actions are performed in the correct sequence. Setting digital clocks is fundamental to everything we do online.
In August, Facebook pushed for an end to the leap second, warning that the transition could have a “devastating effect on software that relies on timers or schedulers.” And she’s not alone: A panel linked to a survey of measurement, science, and technology experts at BIPM found the same opinion.
It is not an idle concern. The leap-second change led to a massive Reddit outage in 2012, as well as related issues at Mozilla, LinkedIn, Yelp, and airline reservation service Amadeus. In 2017, a leap-second glitch in Cloudflare crippled a small portion of the network infrastructure company’s client servers. Cloudflare, which compares two hours, calculated that the time had regressed but could not handle this result correctly.
Previous leap seconds were added to compensate for the slowing of Earth’s rotation, but there is evidence that the rate is now accelerating. It would mean that a leap second had to be removed, and this was never attempted.
Although a leap second is no longer routinely added when Earth time differs with UTC, the BIPM vote leaves the door open for adjustments. It recommended the formation of a policy to adjust the hours in an as yet unspecified time gap.