A decision about whether to abolish the leap second – an extra second added to world time – for January 2018 has been deferred by the world’s nations.
The BBC reports that, after spending some time deliberating about - well, - time, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), at meeting in Geneva this week, have been unable to reach a consensus about the status of the leap second and have deferred any decision until 2015.
The International Telecommunication Union is a United Nations agency. The ITU is responsible for information and communication technologies. The body coordinates use of the global radio spectrum, assigns satellite orbits, works to improve telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world and, in the context of this topic, establishes worldwide standards. The ITU was formed in 1869.
Dawn.com recounts that the leap second was introduced in 1972, to ensure that world time matches the rotation of the Earth (and with the establishment of Coordinated Universal Time, which equates to GMT). The leap second was added because the most accurate of world timepieces – atomic clocks – function by being in-line with the axis of the planet (through the vibrations of atoms). As the Earth wobbles a little on its axis as it spins, it means some days end up being a few milliseconds longer or shorter than others. As a correction factor, the leap second is applied at periodic intervals (either once a year or once every few years: the slippage in time averages at 0.6 seconds per year).
International protocols dictate that six-month’s notice must be given prior to the addition of a leap second to world time.
The discussions from the ITU were almost Kafkaesque in their deliberations. Time Magazine reports that the US proposed, and was supported by Japan, Italy, Mexico and France, that leap seconds should be dropped as they were causing problems for communication and navigation systems (from advanced military aircraft to a GPS in the family car). This was backed by the Paris based International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), who are entrusted as the world’s official timekeepers. However, the UK delegation, backed by Germany and Canada, countered that the leap seconds should remain.
In an earlier BBC report, Peter Whibberley, senior research scientist at the National Physical Laboratory, UK, is quoted as saying: "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.”
In the middle of this debate, nations like Nigeria, Russia and Turkey proposed that a further study be conducted. The science magazine Nature reports that after a vote of the 200-delegate nations the middle-way option won the day and a new report has been commissioned to be presented at the 2015 World Radio Conference.
The key question is: does it matter? The answer is yes, but it depends on which argument is the most valid. The US led view is that the costs of having to change and recalibration navigational equipment for boats and aircraft is very expensive each time there is a leap second. The counter argument is that without adjustment world time slips which will cause longer-term problems. Over a few decades the seconds gradually accumulate into minutes, but over the very long-term (thousands of years) the Sun could conceivably be setting in the morning. Well, Einstein said that time was relative!