Today I Discovered Clocks In Europe Are Running Up To Six Minutes Slow

Today I Discovered Clocks In Europe Are Running Up To Six Minutes Slow
Image: iStock

Something strange is happening to the clocks in Europe. Since mid-January, some of the clocks from Denmark to Turkey have been losing up to six minutes in time. What’s causing this phenomenon?

The unusual bending of the space-time continuum was brought to my attention by John Hyphen on Twitter late last week, who started an easy-to-understand thread about the literal time sink in Europe:

It’s an excellent little Twitter thread that’s extremely captivating and details how both wall clocks and clocks connected to mains electricity work differently. The former uses quartz tuning forks powered by electricity, but the latter uses the frequency of the power grid to keep time.

Fortunately for Europeans, the space-time continuum has not been disrupted in their corner of the world. It’s simpler than that.

Europe’s synchronous power grid is highly interconnected, allowing for energy to be shared across the entire continent to various different countries. The frequency of the grid is set to 50Hz – and must be kept stable by ensuring that electricity production and electricity consumption is always balanced across the grid.

If this balance is thrown out there can be two consequences:

1. Machines may fail to operate correctly or be damaged if the frequency is too low or too high
2. Time keeping. Machines plugged into the power grid will run too fast when the frequency is too high and too slow when the frequency is too low.

The problem was officially acknowledged a week ago by the European Network of Transmission System Operators for Electricity (ENTSO-E), describing an ongoing conflict between Serbia and Kosovo that was contributing to the deviations in the frequency of Europe’s grid.

That conflict has resulted in around 113 GWh of lost energy and meant the mean frequency had dropped to an average of 49.996 Hz.

Fortunately, the problem only affects those clocks connected directly to main power. Your phone uses radio signals for the time and anything battery-powered uses the aforementioned tuning fork – so if Europeans were using their phone alarms they’d still be getting to work on time.

However, anyone with a clock radio might have found themselves missing buses and trains, running a little later than usual.

ENTSO-E have stated that it may take a week to cease the deviation (so you should be good now), but they don’t have a timeline to restore the 113 GWh that have gone missing since mid-January.

[ENTSO-E press release]

Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers – the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. Most of the time, it’s just mind-blowing. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


  • And also higly likely that if you are using a clock radio, the digital circuitry inside would generate the timing rather than relying on the frequency, especially as most current clock radios accept 50-60Hz inputs

Log in to comment on this story!