For a billion years, Earth's day lasted just 19.5 hours  – a new study reveals why

An atmospheric tide driven by the sun countered the effect of the moon, astrophysicists say
view of earth from space with the sun shining in the background

Without the sun’s pull on the Earth’s atmosphere, our day would be 60 hours long (photo by dima_zel/Getty images)

A team of astrophysicists from the University of Toronto has revealed how the slow and steady lengthening of Earth’s day caused by the tidal pull of the moon was halted for over a billion years.

They show that from approximately two billion years ago until 600 million years ago, an atmospheric tide driven by the sun countered the effect of the moon, keeping Earth’s rotational rate steady and the length of day at a constant 19.5 hours.

Without this billion-year pause in the slowing of our planet’s rotation, our current 24-hour day would stretch to over 60 hours.

Drawing on geological evidence and using atmospheric research tools, the scientists show that the tidal stalemate between the sun and moon resulted from the incidental but consequential link between the atmosphere’s temperature and Earth’s rotational rate.

The study was published in the journal Science Advances.

The paper’s authors include Professor Norman Murray, a theoretical astrophysicist with the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics (CITA); graduate student Hanbo Wu, with CITA and the department of physics; Kristen Menou, associate professor in the David A. Dunlap department of astronomy and astrophysics and the department of physical and environmental sciences at U of T Scarborough; Jeremy Leconte, a CNRS researcher at the Laboratoire d’astrophysique de Bordeaux and a former CITA postdoctoral fellow; and Christopher Lee, assistant professor in the department of physics.


Murray and his collaborators relied on geologic evidence in their study, like these samples from a tidal estuary that reveal the cycle of spring and neap tides. Thick bands correspond to spring tides, and thin bands to neap tides (image by G.E. Williams)

When the moon first formed some 4.5 billion years ago, the day was less than 10 hours long. But since then, the moon’s gravitational pull on the Earth has been slowing our planet’s rotation, resulting in an increasingly longer day. Today, it continues to lengthen at a rate of some 1.7 milliseconds every century.

The moon slows the planet’s rotation by pulling on Earth’s oceans, creating tidal bulges on opposite sides of the planet that we experience as high and low tides. The gravitational pull of the moon on those bulges, plus the friction between the tides and the ocean floor, acts like a brake on our spinning planet.

“Sunlight also produces an atmospheric tide with the same type of bulges,” says Murray. “The sun's gravity pulls on these atmospheric bulges, producing a torque on the Earth. But instead of slowing down Earth’s rotation like the moon, it speeds it up.”

For most of Earth’s geological history, the lunar tides have overpowered the solar tides by about a factor of ten – hence the Earth’s slowing rotational speed and lengthening days.

But some two billion years ago, the atmospheric bulges were larger because the atmosphere was warmer and because its natural resonance – the frequency at which waves move through it – matched the length of day.

The atmosphere, like a bell, resonates at a frequency determined by various factors, including temperature. In other words, waves – like those generated by the enormous eruption of the volcano Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883 – travel through it at a velocity determined by its temperature. The same principle explains why a bell always produces the same note if its temperature is constant.

Throughout most of Earth’s history that atmospheric resonance has been out of sync with the planet’s rotational rate. Today, each of the two atmospheric “high tides” take 22.8 hours to travel around the world. Since that resonance and Earth’s 24-hour rotational period are out of sync, the atmospheric tide is relatively small.

But during the billion-year period under study, the atmosphere was warmer and resonated with a period of about 10 hours. Also, at the advent of that epoch, Earth’s rotation – slowed by the moon – reached 20 hours.

When the atmospheric resonance and length of day became even factors (ten and 20), the atmospheric tide was reinforced, the bulges became larger and the sun’s tidal pull became strong enough to counter the lunar tide.

“It’s like pushing a child on a swing,” Murray says.

“If your push and the period of the swing are out of sync, it’s not going to go very high. But, if they’re in sync and you’re pushing just as the swing stops at one end of its travel, the push will add to the momentum of the swing and it will go further and higher. That’s what happened with the atmospheric resonance and tide.”

Along with geological evidence, Murray and his colleagues achieved their result using global atmospheric circulation models (GCMs) to predict the atmosphere’s temperature during this period. The GCMs are the same models used by climatologists to study global warming. Murray says the fact they worked so well in the team’s research is a timely lesson.

“I've talked to people who are climate-change skeptics who don't believe in the global circulation models that are telling us we’re in a climate crisis,” he says. “And I tell them: We used these global circulation models in our research, and they got it right. They work.”

Despite its remoteness in geological history, the result adds additional perspective to the climate crisis. Because the atmospheric resonance changes with temperature, Murray points out that our current warming atmosphere could have consequences in this tidal imbalance.

“As we increase Earth's temperature with global warming, we’re also making the resonant frequency move higher – we’re moving our atmosphere farther away from resonance. As a result, there's less torque from the sun and therefore the length the day is going to get longer – sooner than it would otherwise.”

Arts & Science