Doomsday Clock Ticks Half-Minute Closer to Midnight in Historic Move

The Doomsday Clock was originally created to warn of risks posed to humanity and the planet by nuclear weapons. (Image credit: KREML/Shutterstock)

Updated at 12:02 p.m. ET.

For the first time in its history, the Doomsday Clock, an imaginary timepiece that represents humanity's proximity to annihilation through mechanisms of our own design, has moved 30 seconds closer to calamity, with the minute hand now at 2 and a half minutes to midnight, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced this morning (Jan. 26).

The minute hand's new position for 2017 was determined by the Bulletin's Science and Security Board in consultation with a team of experts including 15 Nobel laureates. They last reset the clock on Jan. 22, 2015, at 3 minutes to midnight, with midnight representing global calamity.

The clock's new position marks the closest its hands have crept toward midnight in more than 60 years. [Doomsdays: Top 9 Real Ways the World Could End]

Members of the Science and Security Board consider a number of factors when deciding which direction the clock will turn: nuclear threats, such as the total number of nuclear warheads in the world and the security of nuclear materials, as well as threats related to climate change, such as sea level rise and amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. They also consider the impacts of biosecurity and other emerging dangers, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reported

Facing multiple threats

Reviewing the events of 2016, experts found that expanding nuclear weapons development and ongoing testing in North Korea, India and Pakistan were causes for grave concern. Thomas Pickering, former U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs (1997-2000) and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan, told reporters that the contentious relationship between the U.S. and Russia was also troubling.

Despite the two countries being presently "at loggerheads with little prospect for negotiation," Pickering said, he expressed hope that President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin might "take their now-budding relationship to something further and more meaningful in the area of nuclear arms reduction," he said.  [The Top 10 Ways to Destroy Planet Earth

Government inaction in the face of climate change also played a part in the board's decision to nudge the clock's hands forward, according to David Titley, a professor of Practice in Meteorology at the Pennsylvania State University. Titley suggested that the new Trump administration should waste no time affirming its acceptance of incontrovertible scientific evidence that climate change is happening and that it is driven by human activity.  

"There are no alternative facts that will make climate change magically go away," Titley told reporters. 

"The Trump administration has put forth candidates for cabinet-level positions that foreshadow the possibility that the new administration will be openly hostile toward even the most modest efforts to avert this catastrophic climate change," Titley said. "Climate change should not be a partisan issue. The well-established physics of the Earth's carbon cycle is neither liberal nor conservative in character," he added.

Cybertechnology and biotechnology were also identified as emerging threats on a global scale, Lawrence Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, announced at the news conference.

Krauss also said that the purported recent intervention of Russia in the U.S. presidential campaign, as reported by U.S. intelligence agencies, highlights the vulnerability of critical information systems in cyberspace and undermines the workings of democracy. Across the world, increased reliance of governments, companies and individuals on the internet raises concerns about the impacts of sophisticated hacking on financial activities, nuclear power grids, power plants and personal freedoms, he said. 

And while the development of DNA-editing technology — such as the one called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) — offers new hope for disease cures, it also carries the risk of fueling malicious activities, as the techniques become more widely available, Krauss said. 

With tech innovation happening so quickly, the input of scientific institutions and experts will be critical for global leaders to confront and manage new and complex threats, he said.

"The Clock ticks"

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 as a cover illustration for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a journal founded in 1945 by researchers who worked on the Manhattan Project, and who "could not remain aloof to the consequences of their work," according to a mission statement. Intended as a warning about how little time there was for humanity to deal with the consequences of having nuclear weapons, its position was fixed at 11:53 p.m.

Since then, the Doomsday Clock has become a symbol of the ongoing peril posed by not only nuclear weapons but also climate change. Scientists and other experts on the Science and Security Board convene twice annually to assess the scope and scale of deadly global dangers and decide if the clock needs to be reset. The minute hand has ticked forward and back, changing position 22 times in the past 70 years.

It hovered as close as 2 minutes to midnight in 1953, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested their first thermonuclear weapons scarcely six months apart, and drifted as far as 17 minutes before the hour in 1991, with the end of the Cold War and the signing of a treaty between the U.S. and the Soviet Union promising a significant reduction of nuclear arsenals.

Closer to midnight

The Doomsday Clock's minute hand didn't move at all in 2016, but swept forward in 2015 — advancing from 5 minutes to 3 minutes before midnight — due to "unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals," all of which "pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity," the Science and Security Board reported.

The failure of world leaders to act on these threats escalated the probability of catastrophe on a global scale, and "the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon," the board cautioned. 

Though the Doomsday Clock is just a metaphor, the current deadly risk to humanity and the planet is all too real, according to the Bulletin. Now more than ever, our future hinges on global leaders who can confront and address the twin threats of climate change and nuclear weaponry, and work together to arrive at solutions that mitigate the peril to us all.

As the Science and Security Board warned in 2015, "The Clock ticks. Global danger looms. Wise leaders should act — immediately."

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology, and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.