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Will Earth no longer define time? Leap second could be abolished.

The rotation of the Earth has defined time for as long as time has been kept, but keeping up with all of Earth's little quirks by adding and subtracting an occasional leap second is getting tiring. Timekeepers could vote Thursday to rely solely on atomic clocks. 

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As timekeeping grew more precise, however, it became clear that Earth's rotation wasn't constant, as previously assumed. Not only did it vary, but it was slowing.

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By international agreement in 1972, solar time and atomic time have coexisted, with the periodic leap second added to atomic clocks to keep the two approaches in sync.

For astronomers, navigators, or those who map or study features of the Earth's crust, solar time as a recognized standard works well, says Geoff Chester, spokesman for the US Naval Observatory in Washington.

For these groups, "ideally you would like to keep leap seconds," he says. Losing the leap second "wouldn't shut them down, it would just make more work for them" as they corrected their timekeeping against an exclusively atomic-clock standard.

Meanwhile, losing the leap second would streamline work and could reduce the risk of outages for the telecommunications business or people who operate large-scale computer networks, which require precise timing to function, Mr. Chester adds.

Unlike the need for a leap day, which comes predictably every four years, the need to add or subtract a leap second comes randomly, with at most six months' warning.

This irregular pattern means humans must intervene to make the change.

"You risk breaking critical infrastructure every time you do a leap second," Chester says.

The swap of who tweaks their time and who doesn't isn't lost on Ken Seidelmann, former director of astrometry at the US Naval Observatory and now a professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville.

"Leap seconds are an inconvenience to the telecommunications people, but there are many other users of time who should be considered," he told the Associated Press.

In some ways, the break with the sun has been occurring for some time, adds NIST's Mr. Lowe. He notes that because of the development of time zones and daylight saving time, noon local time as the clock ticks rarely coincides with the sun reaching its highest point in the sky that day.

"We don't observe high noon as noon anymore anyway," he acknowledges.

Which probably would have suited Gary Cooper just fine.

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