Doomsday Clock—Measuring Humanity’s Threat Of Self-Annihilation—Updates Tuesday. Here’s What To Know.

Topline

The hands of the Doomsday Clock, used by top scientists to use to assess how close humanity is to self-annihilation, will be moved Tuesday for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine and issued threats of nuclear war, and it could show the highest threat level in the project’s history—here are the highest threat levels previously reached.

Timeline

2 minutes to midnight. 1953.The Bulletin moved the clock the closest to midnight it had ever been—and the closest it would ever be in the 20th Century—after the U.S. and the Soviet Union detonated their first thermonuclear weapons.

2.5 minutes to midnight. 2017.The Bulletin said the “words of a single person,” Donald Trump, had motivated the decision to move the clock 30 seconds, having “made a bad international security situation worse” despite only having been president for a matter of days at the time of the announcement.

2 minutes to midnight. 2018.Nuclear concerns were once again center stage when the Bulletin returned the clock to two minutes to midnight in 2018, when the group said major nuclear powers were on the “cusp of a new arms race.”

2 minutes to midnight. 2019. The Bulletin listed the U.S.’ departure as a global nuclear leader, particularly its abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal and withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as ”grave steps towards a complete dismantlement of the global arms control process” and a key reason for keeping the clock at 2 minutes to midnight.

100 seconds to midnight. 2020.The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which oversees the clock, said the twin risks of nuclear war and climate change, compounded by the spread of misinformation and behavior of world leaders, justified moving the clock forwards to 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to midnight it has ever been.

100 seconds to midnight. 2021.The Bulletin cited “accelerating nuclear programs in multiple countries,” the Covid-19 pandemic and the continued failure of governments to tackle climate change as reasons to keep the clock at 100 seconds to midnight, illustrating that “we are stuck in a perilous moment.”

Key Background

The Doomsday Clock is a symbol of how close humanity is to self-annihilation. It was created in 1947 in the wake of the world’s first nuclear detonations by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group of scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. endeavor responsible for developing the world’s first nuclear weapon. The Bulletin, through a group of experts, is responsible for setting the hands of the clock each year. Experts say it is best to use the timings as a way of stimulating discussion, highlighting risks and as a wake-up call rather than a strict risk assessment or indication of time humanity has left. The clock was originally set at seven minutes from midnight in 1947 and the furthest from midnight it has ever been set was 17 minutes in 1991 following the fall of the Soviet Union and signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Big Number

24. That’s how many times the Bulletin has adjusted the clock since its creation. Since 1991, it has been steadily moving closer to midnight, except for a brief reprieve between 2010 and 2012, when it was moved back slightly. Climate change risks were included for the first time in 2017, when the clock was moved five minutes to midnight, and have been a prominent discussion point in the Bulletin’s announcements since.

Further Listening

Over the years, the Doomsday Clock has inspired a number of songs. The Bulletin maintains a playlist of material that references the clock or where the artist has cited it as an inspiration and includes Iron Maiden’s “2 Minutes To Midnight,” The Who’s “Why Did I Fall For That,” Pink Floyd’s “Two Suns in the Sunset” and Linkin Park’s album “Minutes to Midnight.”

Further Reading

How to read the Doomsday Clock (BBC)

Is apocalypse near? How the Doomsday Clock tracks nuclear, climate threats (Washington Post)

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