16.8. Understanding Leap Seconds

Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) was derived by measuring the solar day, which is dependent on the Earth's rotation. When atomic clocks were first made, the potential for more accurate definitions of time became possible. In 1958, International Atomic Time (TAI) was introduced based on the more accurate and very stable atomic clocks. A more accurate astronomical time, Universal Time 1 (UT1), was also introduced to replace GMT. The atomic clocks are in fact far more stable than the rotation of the Earth and so the two times began to drift apart. For this reason UTC was introduced as a practical measure. It is kept within one second of UT1 but to avoid making many small trivial adjustments it was decided to introduce the concept of a leap second in order to reconcile the difference in a manageable way. The difference between UT1 and UTC is monitored until they drift apart by more than half a second. Then only is it deemed necessary to introduce a one second adjustment, forward or backward. Due to the erratic nature of the Earth's rotational speed, the need for an adjustment cannot be predicted far into the future. The decision as to when to make an adjustment is made by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (IERS). However, these announcements are important only to administrators of Stratum 1 servers because NTP transmits information about pending leap seconds and applies them automatically.