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Human-caused climate change has “slowed the Earth’s rotation” and could affect the way we measure time, a study suggests

Melting polar ice due to human-caused climate change has slightly slowed the Earth’s rotation – and could impact how we measure time, according to a study.

Although the disappearance of the ice has reduced the planet’s rotation speed, the Earth is still spinning slightly faster than it used to.

The overall increase in speed means that for the first time in history, world timekeepers may have to consider subtracting a second from our clocks.

This means that around the year 2029, clocks may need to skip a second – a so-called “negative leap second” – to keep universal time in sync with the Earth’s rotation, says the study published in the Nature journal.

Without the effects of melting ice, the time change would have been necessary three years earlier, in 2026.

In recent decades, the Earth has been spinning faster due to changes in its core, but melting ice has counteracted this increase in speed.

Icebergs and melting pack ice in Greenland.  Image: AP
Picture:
Icebergs and melting pack ice in Greenland. Image: AP

The world rotation is like a twirling figure skater

Duncan Agnew, the study’s author and a geophysicist at the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica has changed the concentration of Earth’s mass.

This has slowed the Earth’s rotation because less solid ice in the northern and southern parts of the planet means there is more mass around the equator, the study found.

Mr. Agnew explained this using the example of a figure skater spinning on the ice.

He told NBC News, Sky News’ US affiliate network: “When a skater starts to spin, when she lowers her arms or straightens her legs, she’s slowing down.”

However, when a skater’s arms are pulled inward, it means they are spinning faster.

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The melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica is an accelerating trend that is believed to be largely due to human-caused climate change.

This means that humans may be causing the Earth to rotate less quickly than it would otherwise.

Mr. Agnew continued: “It’s pretty impressive, even to me, that we’ve done something that measurably changes the speed at which the Earth spins.”

“Things are happening that have never happened before.”

The melting of polar ice would be a new factor affecting the rotation of the Earth.

The friction of ocean tides, due in part to the Moon’s gravitational pull, slows the Earth’s rotation.

Meanwhile, the movement of fluid in Earth’s liquid inner core can either speed up or slow down the planet’s rotation speed, Mr. Agnew said.

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