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Leap second

A leap second is a one-second adjustment to civil time in order to keep it close to the mean solar time.


List of leap seconds
  1. 30 June 1972
  2. 31 December 1972
  3. 31 December 1973
  4. 31 December 1974
  5. 31 December 1975
  6. 31 December 1976
  7. 31 December 1977
  8. 31 December 1978
  9. 31 December 1979
  10. 30 June 1981
  11. 30 June 1982
  12. 30 June 1983
  13. 30 June 1985
  14. 31 December 1987
  15. 31 December 1989
  16. 31 December 1990
  17. 30 June 1992
  18. 30 June 1993
  19. 30 June 1994
  20. 31 December 1995
  21. 30 June 1997
  22. 31 December 1998


Civil clock time is based on "Coordinated Universal Time" (UTC), which is maintained by extremely precise atomic clocks. In contrast, the rotation of the Earth, measured by the UT1 timescale, is irregular; the solar day is gradually but unevenly becoming longer, mainly due to the tidal acceleration of the Moon. In order to keep solar time close to civil time, UTC is corrected by a leap of 1 second. The rotation of the earth is now already a bit slower than it should be in order to have a day of exactly 24 hours. If the rotation would now remain constant, leap seconds would be necessary in regular intervals. Because the earth is continually slowing down, the interval between two leap seconds is becoming smaller over longer timescales. 50000 years in the future one can expect to have more than one leap second every day if the time system is not going to be changed.

The instruction to insert a leap second will be given whenever the difference between UTC and UT1 is expected to exceed 0.9 s. After UTC 23:59:59, an additional second at 23:59:60 is counted, before the clock jumps to 00:00:00 of the next day. Negative leap seconds are also possible if the Earth's rotation becomes slightly faster, but this has never happened. In that case, 23:59:58 would be followed by 00:00:00.

Leap seconds can occur only at the end of a month, and have only ever occurred at the end of a June 30th or December 31st. Unlike leap days, they occur simultaneously worldwide; for example, a leap second on 31 December will be observed as 6:59:60 pm U.S. Eastern Standard Time.

Historically, leap seconds have been inserted about every 18 months. However, as the slowing of the Earth is irregular, it is not possible to predict more than a relatively short time in advance whether a leap second will have become necessary. Between January 1972 and November 2001, the IERS gave instructions to insert a leap second on 22 occasions. The most recent leap second was 1998-12-31 23:59:60 UTC; the interval since then has been the longest period without a leap second. In July 2004, the IERS announced that there will NOT be a leap second at the end of December 2004, so the offset between UTC and TAI will likely remain unchanged at least until July 2005.

It is the responsibility of the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service to measure the Earth's rotation and determine whether a leap second is necessary. Their determination is announced in Bulletin C, published every six months.

Note that leap seconds have nothing to do with leap years.

External links

  • IERS Bulletin C, where leap seconds are announced http://www.iers.org/iers/publications/bulletins/bull_c/
  • IERS information about Bulletin C and when leap seconds may occur http://hpiers.obspm.fr/eoppc/bul/bulc/BULLETINC.GUIDE
  • IERS Archive, to view old announcements http://www.iers.org/iers/earth/rotation/utc/table2.html
  • USNO article on leap seconds http://tycho.usno.navy.mil/leapsec.html



Last updated: 02-05-2005 16:37:53
Last updated: 02-26-2005 04:59:47