In Depth

What is the Doomsday Clock and what time is set to now?

‘Return of science and evidence’ cited by team of scientists behind metaphorical clock

The scientists responsible for the Doomsday Clock have unveiled their 75th annual judgement of how close humanity is to armageddon. 

The metaphorical clock’s minute hand has remained at 100 seconds to midnight, a position it has held since 2020. 

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which curates the annual unveiling of the clock’s hands, said that factors including “last year’s leadership change in the United States” and “the return of science and evidence to US policy making in general” contributed to their decision to keep the clock’s hands in the same place. 

But, they added, the change in US leadership alone “was not enough to reverse negative international security trends”. Tensions between Russia, China and the US, as well as North Korea’s unconstrained nuclear and missile expansion, could “mark the start of a dangerous new nuclear arms race”, the panel of scientists said.

The current reading on the clock – 100 seconds to midnight – suggests that the world is the closest it’s ever been to total destruction since the Doomsday Clock’s creation in 1947, at the outset of the cold war. 

The clock lurched forward by 20 seconds in 2020, when the scientists behind it said nuclear proliferation, failure to tackle climate change and “cyber-based disinformation” had contributed to the change.

The clock did not move in 2019, but its minute hand was set forward in 2018 by 30 seconds, making it two minutes to midnight. The scientists cited “rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, the increasing emphasis and expenditure on nuclear weapons by major powers, the absence of arms control negotiations around the world, and the wavering political will to combat climate change” as factors, reported The Guardian

In 2017, the hands of the Doomsday Clock were moved from three minutes to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. 

The move was a reflection of then-President Donald Trump's statements on climate change, his desire to boost the US’s nuclear capabilities and his spats with his own intelligence agencies, together with the damaging consequences of fake news.

The 2017 change marked the first time that the clock had moved by less than a minute, but the team decided to go for a 30-second change because Trump had only just started his administration. 

What is the Doomsday Clock?

The clock dates back to 1947 when physicists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, developing the world's first atomic bombs, came up with the idea. 

Originally it highlighted the fear that mankind would destroy itself through nuclear warfare - now it also symbolises the threat from climate change.

How does it work?

The notional clock is set to a certain number of minutes before midnight, counting down to our destruction. The board that maintains it meets twice a year to decide if Doomsday is any closer.

Who maintains the clock?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, now an online journal, is responsible for the clock. Founded as a print publication in Chicago, its original editors and contributors included scientists who had developed nuclear weapons and were horrified at the potential danger to humanity they represented.

Why maintain the clock?

The concept of a Doomsday Clock was devised to convey to the wider public the dangers of nuclear weapons, which were apparent to scientists. The original setting of the clock was seven minutes to midnight, when it appeared on the cover of the Bulletin in 1947.

In 2007, the Bulletin formally began to consider climate change alongside nuclear threats in setting the clock, said the BBC. “The severity of these two risks, both in terms of their potential to cause global catastrophes and their likelihood of doing so, are undoubtedly comparable,” it explained. 

What’s the closest the minute hand has been?

The closest the clock has stood to Doomsday since it began ticking was in 2020, with scientists citing the risk of civil collapse from nuclear weapons, climate change and the rise of “cyber-enabled disinformation campaigns”, said The Guardian

Prior to 2020, the closest it had been was in 1953. That year, the clock was moved to two minutes to midnight in response to the US government's decision to develop the hydrogen bomb, which was more deadly than any atom bomb. 

The safest we've ever been was apparently in 1991 when the Cold War ended and the clock retreated to 17 minutes to Doomsday.


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