Leap Years: Why they exist and the future without them
Leap years are years where an extra day is added to the end of the year’s shortest month, February. The intercalary day, February 29, is commonly referred to as a leap day. Leap years have 366 days instead of the normal 365 and occur almost every four years. Leap years are handy because they keep our modern-day calendar in alignment with the Earth’s revolving around the sun.
The Earth takes approximately 365.24 days, or 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes and 45 seconds, to circle once around the sun.
This is called a tropical year and it starts annually on the March equinox.
However, the calendar we use, called the Gregorian calendar, only has 365 days in every single year.
If scientists didn’t add a leap day on February 24 almost every four years, each calendar would start about six hours before the Earth completes its trip around the sun.
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As a consequence, human time reckoning would slowly drift apart from the tropical year and get increasingly out of sync with the seasons.
With a deviation of approximately six hours per year, the seasons would shift by about 24 calendar days within 100 years.
If this were to be allowed to happen, those living in the Northern Hemisphere would end up celebrating Christmas in the middle of summer in a matter of a few hundred years.
Leap days, instead, fix this error by giving the Earth the additional time it needs to complete a full circle around the sun.
However, adding a leap year every four years exactly proved too often for the regulation to work effectively.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII introduced the Gregorian calendar in a shift from the Roman calendar widely used before.
This calendar, which is the one we still use today, has a more precise formula for the calculation of leap years, also known as bissextile years.
The ancient Roman Calendar added an extra month every few years to maintain the correct seasonal changes, similar to the Chinese leap month.
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Is February a leap year?
February’s name derives from the Latin word Februarius, which means to clean or purify.
The month was named after a month-long festival of purification and atonement called Roman Februalia.
February is the only month of the year to have a length of fewer than 30 days.
This year, 2021, February is not a leap month and will only have 28 days as normal, given that 2020 was a leap year.
When is the next leap year?
The next leap year is expected to be in 2024, in line with the every four-or-so years rule.
Following this, the next three leap years should take place in 2028, 2032 and 2036, all on February 29.
Before 2020, the last leap day fell on February 29, 2016.
The year 2016 also had a leap second just before midnight on New Year’s Eve in an effort to maintain the accuracy of the calendar.
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