The Leap Second Is Coming to Confuse the Internet Today


June 21 is usually seen as the longest day of the year, but in 2015, it’s June 30 that technically holds that distinction. And it could be a problem. Tomorrow at just before midnight in London, the world’s atomic clocks will add one extra second, reading a time of 23:59:60 before ticking back to 00:00:00. It’s a measure that’s required to keep the ultra-precise devices attuned to the Earth’s actual rotation, but the last time this happened in 2012, the unexpected leap second crashed Reddit, Foursquare, Gawker, LinkedIn, and a host of other sites that didn’t bank on time being arbitrarily changed.

Fortunately, most companies have factored the leap second into their operations this time around. Google has adopted a “leap smear” technique to avoid issues with the added second: rather than repeating it at the end of the day, Google’s engineers will dice it into millisecond chunks and sprinkle it throughout the regular day, hopefully avoiding server meltdowns in the process. Bloomberg reports that the same process will be used by Japanese, Australian, South Korean, and Singaporean stock and futures exchanges. For others, the solution is less neat. In New York, where the leap second is scheduled to be added at around 8PM, stock markets are simply closing early to avoid headaches. Nasdaq will stop trading at 7:48PM, and shut down at 7:55PM, while both Intercontinental Exchange Inc. and CME Group are delaying data transitions during the period.

In an environment where market values fluctuate and deals are done in tiny fractions of time, a rogue second could potentially affect millions of dollars, but for most internet users, the leap second should be added without too much of a hitch — Geoff Chester, of the US Naval Observatory in Washington, told Bloomberg that only ten percent of large-scale computer networks are set to suffer problems caused by the leap second. For now at least, companies need to learn how to factor the leap second into their operations, but that may change: members of the International Telecommunication Union meet every three years to decide whether to keep adding the extra time. If they decide not to, the Earth’s rotation — slowed in varying degrees by weather, tectonic forces, and the pull of the Moon — will eventually fall out of synchronization with our clocks.

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