While Earth on June 29 actually didsince 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 led to misleading posts on social media about the significance of the measurement, leading some to express concern about its implications.
“They brought 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 became so desensitized to disaster at this point that it’s just as well what’s next.”
Some Twitter users responded to these tweets with jokes, as well as skepticism about the size of the measurement. However, others expressed concerns about how it would affect them.
But scientists told the AP that the Earth’s rotation rate fluctuates constantly and that the record reading is nothing to panic about.
“It’s a perfectly normal thing,” 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 are going to 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 rotation speed does not mean that the days go noticeably faster either. Merkowitz explained that standardized time was once determined by how long it takes the Earth to rotate once on its axis – commonly understood to be 24 hours. However, because the speed fluctuates slightly, this number can vary by milliseconds.
Scientists in the 1960s began working with atomic clocks 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 taken by atomic clocks, Merkowitz said. If these measurements become too out of sync, the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service, an organization that maintains global time, can fix the discrepancy by adding a leap second.
Some engineers oppose the introduction of a leap second, as it can lead to major and devastating technical problems. Meta engineers Oleg Obleukhov and Ahmad Byagowi wrote a blog post about it for Meta, which supports an industry-wide effort to stop future introductions of leap seconds.
“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. “But it has never been verified on a large scale and is likely to lead to unpredictable and devastating power outages worldwide.”
Despite recent reductions in the length of a day in recent years, days have actually been getting longer over 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 was not predicted but agreed that there is nothing to worry about.
Many variables affect the Earth’s rotation, for example the influence of other planets or the Moon, as well as how the Earth’s mass redistributes itself. For example, the melting of ice sheets or weather events that create a denser atmosphere, according to Merkowitz.
But the kind of event that would shift enough mass to affect Earth’s rotation in a way that is noticeable to humans would be something terrible like the planet being hit by a giant meteor, Merkowitz said.
Caitlin O’Kane contributed to this report.