11 Times the Doomsday Clock Time Has Been Adjusted
Today, January 26, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced [PDF] that the Doomsday Clock would be set ahead 30 seconds. We now stand at 2 minutes and 30 seconds to midnight. It's the closest we've come to midnight since the 1950s.
If you haven't heard of the Doomsday Clock, here's a brief and terrifying synopsis for you: It was created in 1947 at the University of Chicago as an easy analogy to show people how close we are to armageddon at any given moment. "Midnight" on the clock represents doomsday, and, obviously, the closer the hands are to midnight, the closer we are to total annihilation.
The group set the clock ahead 30 seconds for 2017 because in the past year, "the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity’s most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change," it said in a statement. It also cited as causes for deep concern the dangerous proliferation of fake news—"trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways"—and potential threats from emerging technologies, especially sophisticated hacks that can wreak havoc on both power grids and electoral systems.
When it was first "set" in 1947, during the Cold War, we were at 11:53. Since then, it's been readjusted 22 times. Here are 11 of those adjustments and why they happened.
1. By 1953, the clock had lost five minutes, putting the time at 11:58. But there was good reason—it was the time period when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were testing nukes. So far, it's the closest we've ever been to midnight.
2. Ten years later, though, we had not only gained back those five, we had doubled it. The clock was at 11:48 thanks to increased studies and scientific understanding of nuclear weapons. And, in 1963, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which limited nuclear testing.
3. Although things were looking up regarding the Soviet Union, by 1968, France and China had developed nukes and we were embroiled in Vietnam. Mainly due to those events, we lost another five minutes, putting us at 11:53.
4. In the next three years, the Senate passed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Soviet Union signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The three treaties equaled five minutes gained on the clock, putting us back at 11:48.
5. At least, until India tested a nuclear device in 1974 and we lost another three. The clock read 11:51.
6. By 1981, the U.S. and the USSR weren't as "friendly" as they were during the past treaties, and discussions had kind of stalled. The arms race was getting out of control, terrorists were becoming more active, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had sharpened the division between the United States and the USSR. This resulted in a loss of six minutes, putting us closer to midnight than we had been since 1953.
7. But then things started to look up. By 1991, more treaties were signed, the Berlin Wall was torn down, the Iron Curtain fell. We gained a whopping 14 minutes, putting us at 11:43, the farthest we have ever been from midnight. Talk about a swing in events.
8. It didn't last long, though, and we've been losing ground ever since. In 1998, India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons. That combined with increased military spending throughout the world caused us to lose eight minutes, putting us back in the less-than-10-minute range, putting us at 11:51.
9. We still weren't gaining any ground in 2002. The U.S. rejected arms control treaties, probably because of 9/11, and announced they were withdrawing from the previously-signed Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This resulted in a loss of two minutes; the clock read 11:53.
10. The clock lost two minutes in 2007 thanks to North Korea's nuke tests and the uncertainty of Iran's nuclear actions. Another two were lost in 2015 because the United States and Russia began modernizing their nuclear weapons programs—and the threat of climate change was added to the previous worries of nuclear destruction.
11. The 30-second move this year marks the first time the group has set the clock ahead less than a full minute. Why? They're deeply troubled by Donald Trump's "statements and actions" but acknowledge it's still early in his administration. They write, "He has made ill-considered comments about expanding the US nuclear arsenal. He has shown a troubling propensity to discount or outright reject expert advice related to international security, including the conclusions of intelligence experts. And his nominees to head the Energy Department and the Environmental Protection Agency dispute the basics of climate science. In short, even though he has just now taken office, the president’s intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse."
Editor's note: This story, which first ran in 2009, has been updated.