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Why do we need leap years? Western professors have the answer

(Source: Gam1983/iStock/Getty Images Plus) (Source: Gam1983/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
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Two professors at Western University in London, Ont. Want you to know why we need leap years.

Every four years, the world experiences the event, an extra day known as a leap year. But according to the Western professors, there was a point in time when 90 leap days were necessary.

Classical studies professor Alexander Meyer said leap years can be traced back to the infamous Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar.

“The previous Roman calendar needed constant correction and could be, and was, manipulated for political reasons,” said Meyer, who studies Roman imperial history along with ancient clocks and calendars and researches identity in antiquity and Roman provincial studies.

“The problems had gotten so bad by 46 BCE that Caesar had to add 90 days to the year to bring it back into alignment with the solar year and the seasons.”

As part of his calendar reform Caesar introduced a leap day, which was to be inserted in the calendar every fourth year after February 24. However, according to Meyer, Caesar was assassinated before he could see the plan implemented properly.

It wasn’t until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII put into place the modern Gregorian calendar and leap year system.

However, the question remains — why are human calendars so imperfect as to require an extra day every four years?

Physics and astronomy professor Pauline Barmby believes she has the answer.

“We need leap years because the year (the time it takes the Earth to go around the Sun) is not a perfect number of days,” said Barmby, who is chair of the department of physics and astronomy and specializes in observational studies of star formation and stellar populations in nearby galaxies.

“If we ignored this, the calendar would get out of sync with the seasons. The year is close to 365.25 days, so adding an extra day every four years gets close to fixing this.”

Despite adding these extra days, it doesn’t perfectly correct for the discrepancy due to another astronomical situation — the Earth’s rotation is gradually slowing.

According to Barmby, over the past few millennia the Earth’s rotation has slowed meaning our days are getting slightly longer. Though the change is relatively minor, Barmby said it does add up over time, which also impacts our calendars.

“The International Bureau of Weights and Measures, located in Sèvres, France, oversees precise timekeeping and addresses the slowing rotation by adding ‘leap seconds’ every couple of years,” she said.

“There is a plan to stop doing this in 2035, meaning eventually some other way to keep everything in sync will need to be created.  

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