Earth is spinning faster than it should be and no one is sure why

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If the days feel like they get shorter as you get older, you may not be imagining it. On June 29, 2022, the Earth made one full rotation that took 1.59 milliseconds less than the average day length of 86,400 seconds, or 24 hours. While a 1.59 millisecond shortening might not seem like much, it is part of a larger and peculiar trend.

Indeed, on July 26, 2022, another new record was nearly set when the Earth finished its day 1.50 milliseconds shorter than usual, as reported by The Guardian and the time-tracking website Time and Date. Time and Date notes that the year 2020 had the highest number of short days since scientists started using atomic clocks to take daily measurements in the 1960s. Scientists first started to notice the trend in 2016.

While the length of an average day may vary slightly in the short-term, in the long-term the length of the day has been increasing since the Earth-moon system was formed. That’s because over time, the force of gravity has moved energy from the Earth — via the tides — to the Moon, pushing it slightly further away from us. Meanwhile, because the two bodies are in tidal lock — meaning the Moon’s rate of rotation and revolution are equivalent such that we only ever see one of its sides — physics dictates that the Earth’s day must lengthen if the two bodies are to remain in tidal lock as the moon moves further away. Billions of years ago, the Moon was much closer and the length of Earth’s day much shorter.

While scientists know that the Earth’s days are shortening on a short-term scale, a definitive reason as to why remains unclear— along with the effect it might have on how we as humans track time.

“The rotation rate of Earth is a complicated business. It has to do with exchange of angular momentum between Earth and the atmosphere and the effects of the ocean and the effect of the moon,” Judah Levine, a physicist in the time and frequency division of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, told Discover Magazine. “You’re not able to predict what’s going to happen very far in the future.”

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