Earth's Rotation is Slowing Down Due to So Much Polar Ice Melting. It May Affect Time

Climate change is causing so much polar ice melt that it's slowing down Earth's rotation and — here's the kicker — it will alter how we measure time in the future.

That's the outrageous conclusion that Duncan Agnew, geo scientist and professor at California University, San Diego, reached by analyzing data from satellite imaging, as detailed in a research published in the journal Nature. 

Fundamentally, as polar ice melts into the ocean, there's less mass overall at the poles and the middle of the planet becomes a little heavier, hence slowing down Earth's rotation.

"If you have a [figure] skater who starts spinning, if she lowers her arms or stretches out her legs, she will slow down," Agnew told NBC News, using ice skating as an analogy to what's happening to Earth's rotational velocity.

And that raises a problem for the measurement of time itself. If our planet's rotation is slowing down, that means time keepers all over the world will have to adjust. This has impacts reaching far beyond our watches. It touches the functioning of satellites, computers, financial institutions and everywhere else where every second counts.

Institutions will likely have to adjust. The global time standard, known as UTC, almost matches the Earth's rotation — but because the rotation speed can be variable, this has at times necessitated timekeepers to add or subtract a leap second to the clock, Agnew explains.

After crunching numbers, Agnew concluded that if polar ice didn't melt, we would have had to subtract a second from clocks all over the globe by 2026. 

But because of ice melt slowing down Earth's rotation, this time change may come instead in 2029, Agnew added.

"It’s kind of impressive, even to me, we’ve done something that measurably changes how fast the Earth rotates," explained Agnew to NBC News. "Things are happening that are unprecedented."

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