It’s time to panic again. Not about terrorism, or global warming, or Katy Perry performing during halftime of the Super Bowl.
Panic will grip America on June 30 when we add an extra second to our clocks. This will no doubt confuse our computers, shut down the electrical grid, cause planes to drop from the sky, and all that other stuff that happened when the calendar rolled over on January 1, 2000.
Actually, the concerns — some of them — are justified. This isn’t the first time we’ve added a second so that atomic clocks can be in sync with the earth’s rotation. When it happened in 2012, parts of the internet crashed and several prominent websites went down.
Are we any better prepared this time?
Gizmodo explains the computer problems: “It mostly has to do with NTP, or the Network Time Protocol computers use to sync with atomic clocks. If a computer sees the same second twice in a row, it logically thinks something went very wrong. There are fixes to this, but they’ve obviously not been implemented across the board.”
There are fears it might happen again this year.
That’s part of the reason why there’s been lobbying, especially from officials in the U.S., to do away with the extra second. The New York Times reports: “Britain, along with Canada and China, would like to keep the current keeping system, arguing that, in the 40 years that leap seconds have been gracefully inserted in our midst … there have been no problems to speak of, and the worriers have greatly exaggerated the potential for havoc. Remember Y2K?”
The Times article, though, was written in January of 2012, when delegates were meeting that year to decide whether to keep the extra second. This was months before it caused parts of the Internet to crash.
So yeah, we have to deal with Earth’s rotation slowing down – but that’s better than having the Earth stop rotating entirely for a second.
“Yeah, that would be disastrous. … If you stopped Earth and you weren’t seat belt-buckled to the Earth, you would fall over and roll 800 mph due east. It would kill everyone on Earth,” astrophysicist and science commentator Neil deGrasse Tyson said on CNN.
The computer problem with the leap second is actually getting worse. USA Today explains:
The reset has happened 25 times since they were introduced in 1972, but the computer problems are getting more serious as increasing numbers of computers sync up with atomic clocks. Those computers and servers are then shown the same second twice in a row — throwing them into a panic.
If a computer is told to do an operation at the time that is repeated, for instance, the computer is unsure what to do. Or if an e-mail is received in that moment, it could find its way in the wrong bit of the server.
Last time, Google anticipated the problem and built a smart update, which it called “leap smear”. It modified its servers so that they would add a little bit of extra time every time they were updated, so that by the time of the leap second they were already caught up with the new time. It said when it laid out the plan in 2011 that it would use the same technique in the future, when new leap seconds are announced.
Leap seconds were initially added at least once a year, but have slowed since 1979. The U.S. wants to get rid of them entirely, arguing that they cause too much disruption, but others have opposed the change.
So, no, planes won’t be crashing all over the world, nor will the electrical grid melt down. At worse, you may lose an email or two. With my luck, my Word program will go haywire and I’ll lose an article I would be working on.
Everyone has their own computer hell to avoid. Here’s hoping you ride through the Leap Second with minimal damage.