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Europe’s Clocks Run Slow as Countries Argue

Pristina, Kosovo —(Map)

Clocks all over Europe have been running up to six minutes slow recently. Why? The surprising answer is because Serbia and Kosovo are not getting along.

Clocks keep the time in different ways. Some use crystals. Others, like phones and computers can use radio signals or check in with a time telling service. But some clocks use the electricity that powers them to keep the time. Clock radios, ovens, and microwaves are good examples. These are the clocks that are having the trouble.

Some clocks use the changes in AC power to keep time.
Some clocks use the changes in AC power to keep time.
(Source: Tysto, via Wikimedia Commons.)

When we use electricity from batteries, that’s direct current (DC). The electricity only flows one way. But the electricity that we get from the wall is alternating current (AC). That means that the electricity changes direction many times a second. In Europe, the electricity should change back and forth exactly 50 times a second, and that’s what the clocks expect.

But that’s not what’s been happening. Since late January, the electricity in Europe has been changing a teeny tiny bit more slowly (49.996 times per second instead of 50). That made the clocks run more slowly. And because the problem kept going on, the tiny bits now add up to about 6 minutes for a clock!

A meter showing slightly lower than 50 changes (cycles) per second
A meter showing slightly lower than 50 changes (cycles) per second
(Source: Julo, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Why did the problem keep going on? Because Serbia and Kosovo don’t get along. Those two countries were supposed to work together to make electricity. If one country could not make enough, then the other one was supposed to help out. The two countries used to be part of the same country. But a war started between them about 20 years ago. 10 years ago Kosovo decided to become its own country. Serbia says it doesn’t even believe that Kosovo is a country.

Map showing Serbia and Kosovo
Map showing Serbia and Kosovo
(Source: Reinoutr , via .)

So when Kosovo had trouble at a factory that makes power, Serbia was supposed to help out. But Serbia didn’t. The electricity from most of Europe goes into one big system. Because Kosovo couldn’t make enough electricity and Serbia wouldn’t help out, electricity in Europe slowed down, and so did the clocks.

The Obilic Power Plant in Kosovo
The Obilic Power Plant in Kosovo
(Source: Julian Nitzsche, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Kosovo has now fixed the factory. The people controlling the electricity are going to make the electricity in Europe go a little bit faster for a while so that the clocks can catch up. The bigger problem is figuring out how to help Kosovo and Serbia solve their problems.


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