Leap Seconds and What To Do With Them

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The start of this new year started with some buzz about a leap second being introduced between Dec 31st 2008, 23:59:59 and Jan 1st 2009, 00:00:00. I've had people ask where this leap second actually comes from, and whether you need to worry about it in your applications. To understand leap seconds means, unfortunately, understanding how time is actually kept.

There are many different time keeping scales. They are either defined as an arbitrary value, or obtained from astronomical observations. First of all, there are the variants of Universal Time. UT1 is the principal form of Universal Time. UT1 is the same all over the world, and is related to the Earths rotation. The rotation speed of the Earth is not precise, and is slowed down by the tidal friction of the Moon among things. Obviously, this is a bad base to build a stable and precise timekeeping scale on.

An (SI) second is nowadays defined as "the duration of 9 192 631 770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom". This can be measured very accurately by atomic clocks and is the base for International Atomic Time (TAI, from Temps Atomique International). This scale however, does not take into account the gradual but increasing slowing down of the Earth's rotation and will therefore not reflect the approximation to "mean solar time" over longer periods of time. This makes it useless as a civil timekeeping scale.

For the latter purpose, Coordinated Universal Time (UTC, from Universal Time, Coordinated) has been established. UTC uses SI seconds but is adjusted for the slowing down of Earths rotation with leap seconds. Because it's not possible to predict the rotation of the Earth upfront, leap seconds are only added when the difference between UTC and UT1 approaches 0.6 SI seconds in order to keep UTC and UT1 not differ from each other for more than 0.9 seconds. UTC was defined (in the latest adjustment of its definition) as being 10 seconds different from TAI making 1972-01-01T00:00:00 UTC and 1972-01-01T00:00:10 TAI the same instant. Since 1972, 24 leap seconds have been introduced, making TAI differ from UTC with 34 seconds currently. As the Earth's rotation is slowing down at an ever increasing rate, the use of leap seconds will get more and more annoying. After the 25th century, it is likely that more than 4 leap seconds would be required every year. This is of course highly unpractical and a solution needs to be found for this.

There are two other timescales based on TAI. Terrestial Time (TT) as the modern astronomical standard for the passage of time. TT is defined as TAI + 32.184 seconds. GPS Time, as used by GPS satellites and receivers, was set to match UTC in 1980, but now deviates with 15 seconds due to the addition of leap seconds in UTC. GPS Time is defined as TAI - 19 seconds.

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) is often used as synonym for UTC, although that is strictly not correct. GMT is an astronomical concept and therefore linked to UT1. Greenwich Mean Time is also used as timezone name for a timezone with zero seconds offset from UTC. It is for example used in winter in the UK and Ireland. During the summer, when the UK and Ireland switch to daylight savings time, GMT is not used at all. British Summer Time (BST) and Ireland Standard Time (IST) are then used instead. 1

A thing to realize is that leap seconds are added only at the end of June 30th and December 31st. The seconds are added at 23:59:59 UTC . This means that there is no need to add an extra second while counting down to the new year unless you're in a timezone that is UTC +0 seconds (such as GMT, or WET). Of course, in other locations the leap second is inserted as well at the same time. In Norway, the leap second was added at Jan 1st, 2009, at 00:59:59 for example.

Unix time (also called POSIX time) is defined as the number of seconds since Jan 1st 1970, 00:00 UTC, but without leap seconds. Although it is called Unix time , this timekeeping standard is used widely in many other operating systems and computing devices. Unix time simply counts the number of seconds since the epoch. A date/time expressed in those seconds is often called a Unix time stamp. Not supporting leap seconds means that Unix time does not have any way to represent the leap second in the form of 23:59:60. Instead it just uses the same second twice. In practical terms, that means that Unix time progressed like this during the year transition: 1230767999, 1230768000, 1230768000 and 1230768001. The first 1230768000 represents 2008-12-31 23:59:60 UTC, and the second 1230768000 represents 2009-01-01 00:00:00 UTC. For applications there is no way to differentiate between the two distinct times, although many applications will accept both as input, like this PHP example shows:

<?php
echo strtotime("2008-12-31 23:59:59 UTC"), "\n";
echo strtotime("2008-12-31 23:59:60 UTC"), "\n";
echo strtotime("2009-01-01 00:00:00 UTC"), "\n";
echo strtotime("2009-01-01 00:00:01 UTC"), "\n";
?>

In order to synchronize the system time the Network Time Protocol (NTP) is widely used. NTP can use different sources of time information in an hierarchical fashion. The protocol knows how to deal with leap seconds to provide the correct Unix time stamp.

To recap the above information: UT1 is based on the actual rotational speed of the Earth and is therefore never accurate. TAI is a time scale based on the actual count of SI seconds. UTC also uses SI seconds, but requires a leap second in order not to deviate from the unstable UT1 which is in sync with the average time of when the Sun is due South (mean solar time). Unix time counts SI seconds, and resembles UTC except that instead of leap seconds, the Unix time stamp is simply used twice. GMT is both a different name for UT1 and a name for a timezone with an UTC offset of 0 seconds. PHP uses Unix time, and does not care about leap seconds.

Happy New Year!

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Comments

Good Article! I didn't know about the leap second until last night at about 11:45pm. It's amazing they can just add in a second to the time. why not another hour or two?

Thanks for the thorough explanation. This is the first time I actually understood all the different variations.

Don't you have anything better to do with your time?

I'm not sure what you mean by UT1 is never accurate. How would you describe UTC as given by the two different US agencies responsible for time as seen in http://tf.nist.gov/pubs/bulletin/nistusno.htm or all of the time differences measured by BIPM in their monthly issues of Circular T at http://www.bipm.org/jsp/en/TimeFtp.jsp?TypePub=publication

Great post. Thank you.

Great post!

One note: technically it is "daylight saving time", not "daylight savings time". It's a common mistake that I made up until a few years ago. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daylight_saving_time#Terminology)

Thanks for the great article Derick! You made it easy to understand all the differences!

Great post! There are so many versions of universal time it can make your head spin. Nevertheless it's very interesting. I read on phpadvent you (correct me if i'm wrong) are writing a book about time issues in software? Could you share when approximately it's going to be released? Also are there any good books available on this subject already? I'm interested how did you learn all this stuff. Are there any good not very well known sources worth sharing?

@Žilvinas: The book should be out soon. We're currently removing all the rough edges. As for sources, Wikipedia, books, source code, comments in the timezone definition files... Just lots of material I ran into the last few years.

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