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What Leap Year Has to Do with Our Orbit, Solar System: Oregon / Washington Coast Science

Published 2/27/24 at 5:55 p.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

What Leap Year Has to Do with Our Orbit, Solar System: Oregon / Washington Coast Science

(Oregon Coast) – The end of this month is going to take just a little bit longer on the Oregon coast and Washington coast. Well, actually that's true for the entire world. (Photo of Manzanita and collage / Oregon Coast Beach Connection)

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This February is a leap year, meaning February does not simply have 28 days – there's 29 of them. All this has to do with our solar system, the sun and our place in it, as well as – believe it or not – Julius Caesar.

According to OMSI astronomy expert Jim Todd, leap years have 366 days instead of 365. It comes down to the way we keep track of days and months in the calendar, and the sneaky way Earth's orbit has of adding a few hours every year.

If we didn't have leap years, Todd said, every few years our calendar would be off by a whole day, and by 100 or so years down the line holidays like Christmas would end up in strange places like summer.

“Leap years occur almost every four years,” Todd told Oregon Coast Beach Connection. “Leap days are added to our Gregorian calendar to keep it in sync with Earth's revolutions around the Sun. The time taken by Earth to complete one revolution around the Sun is approximately 365.242189 days or 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 45 seconds. This period is a tropical year and begins on the March equinox.”

With the Gregorian calendar being the most widely-used on the planet, it consists of 365 days. Without adding the extra day, every calendar year would shift by about six hours each year.The length of time it takes for our planet to complete a rotation isn't completely divisible by 24 hours. So every few years, there winds up an extra day.

“With an error of around 6 hours per year, the seasons would move by about 24 calendar days in 100 years,” Todd said. “If this kept happening, in just a few centuries, people living in the Northern Hemisphere would celebrate Christmas in the middle of summer.”

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For the Oregon coast and Washington coast, whale migration season would be in a different month century or so, and eventually June, July and August would be the cold, stormy season. Meanwhile, December would the height of tourism season. Some time after that, it would all shift to another season completely.

“Without this additional day, each calendar year would begin approximately 6 hours before the Earth completes its revolution around the Sun, causing discrepancies in the calendar,” Todd said. “Leap days fix that error by giving Earth the additional time to complete a full circle around the Sun.”

We've been on the Gregorian calendar since the 1500s, but leap years were actually introduced around the first century by Julius Caesar, the Roman general and emperor. Called the Julian calendar, it was set up so any year that could be divided evenly by four would be a leap year.

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This created too many leap years, and it created a drift of one day every 128 years. This formula would work, Todd said, if it accounted for the exact extra hours each year – which is actually not quite six hours.

“That's why the Gregorian calendar uses slightly more complicated rules to determine which years are leap years,” Todd said. “While it's still not perfect, the resulting deviation is minimal.”

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Boiler Bay, courtesy Oregon King Tides / Amy Williams

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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