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The Doomsday Clock’s Hands Will Stay Put for Now

Experts agree—when it comes to nuclear weapons and climate change, it’s still three minutes until midnight

The Doomsday Clock represents humanity's proximity to total catastrophe. (145/Gregor Schuster/Ocean/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

How close is the world to the brink of destruction? One group of scientists visualizes that scary question in terms of a clock ticking toward a terrifying midnight. Today, the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced that its clock's hands will remain at three minutes to midnight.

The announcement of the time on the Doomsday Clock, as it is called, reflects continuing concerns about nuclear proliferation, international tensions and the dangers of climate change. During its 69-year existence, the clock has become a kind of bellwether of scary international issues—one that was intended to help the public understand just how close humans are to nuclear and climate catastrophes. 

In a press conference about the decision, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss notes that the world remains "the closest to the brink since 1983, when U.S.-Russia tensions were at their iciest in decades.” The board cites nuclear modernization and widespread international tensions, among its reasoning for the clock's positioning. “The fight against climate change has barely begun,” says Krauss, noting that despite the recent Paris accord where 196 countries pledged to reduce emissions of the greenhouse gases, it still does not seem like nations are equipped to deal with pressing challenges. He went on to say that the decision not to move the hand “is not good news, but an expression of grave concern.”

Everything from marked global warming to inadequate social and governmental change were cited as factors contributing to board members decisions. And the publication’s “Doomsday Dashboard” lists factors like the security of nuclear material, amount of weapons, and climate markers like average temperature, atmospheric CO2 and sea level rise, as well. 

The Doomsday Clock was first created in 1947, when the editor of the Bulletin wanted a strong visual for the cover of the magazine that portrayed the growing threat of nuclear war. Artist Martyl Langsdorf came up with the idea of a clock set at seven minutes to midnight. The clock has since been switched back and forth an average of twice a year, first by the magazine’s editor and now by a team of scientists and experts with insight into both nuclear technology and the climate.

The closest the clock ever came to midnight was in 1953, when thermonuclear tests and growing tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. prompted a move to two minutes to midnight. In total, the clock’s hands have moved 22 times in 69 years. 

The hands may not have moved this time, but given that it’s just one minute away from the worst year on Doomsday Clock record should be anything but comforting.

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