A simple animation by a planetary scientist reveals what would happen without leap years: December would eventually drift into summer

earth north pole arctic

Norman Kuring/NASA/GSFC/Suomi NPP

A composite image of Earth from above the North Pole, May 26, 2012.

February 29 comes once every four years for a good reason: Without it, December would eventually drift into summer. 

A new animation from James O'Donoghue, a planetary scientist at the Japanese space agency (JAXA), illustrates why we need leap years.

"The way we do leap years is fairly messy looking, but I can't think of a better way to handle them," he told Business Insider in an email. "We do it so our seasons don't migrate over time."

O'Donoghue spends his free time making animations of astronomy concepts like the moon's retreat from Earth and the vastness of our solar system. He recently created this one to explain why 2020 is 366 days long. As his video (below) makes clear, leap years resolve a problem with the way we track time: Even though our calendars measure a year as 365 days, Earth's orbit around the sun actually takes 365.242 days.

O'Donoghue's animation reveals what would happen if we didn't have leap years - after 400 years, our calendar months would drift into new seasons.

 

Astronomically, seasons are marked by equinoxes and solstices. The equinox happens twice a year, in March and September, when Earth's equator lines up with the center of the sun. On those days, day and night are nearly equal lengths everywhere on the planet. After that, the seasons change. Days grow longer and nights become shorter on one side of the planet, and vice versa on the other.

The solstice is the opposite: On those days, the sun appears at its furthest point from the equator, and the lengths of day and night are the most unequal.

Because it takes Earth 365.242 days to travel from one March equinox to the next, our calendars fall 0.242 days short of the actual seasons every year. That extra quarter of a day, of course, adds up to one full day of drift every four years. So leap days re-align our calendars with the astronomical seasons.

Earth equinoxes and solstices graphic

Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

"One cannot simply add six hours to our year to fix this, because then the sun would rise six hours later the next day," O'Donoghue said. "We could do it, but only if we don't care that the 24-hour clock will cease relating to sunrise and sunset."

Leap years are the least confusing solution, he added.

"I actually really admire the leap year system we have now: It presents a great opportunity for people to discuss the celestial mechanics of our planet," O'Donoghue said.

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