Doomsday Deferred: End-of-World Clock Set Back 1 Minute

The Doomsday Clock has been set back 1 minute for the first time in its 63-year history. In moving the clock from 5 minutes before midnight to 6 minutes before midnight, scientists expressed optimism for humanity's future.

This end-of-the-world clock, set up in 1947, is meant to convey how close we are to the end of the world via catastrophe caused by nuclear weapons or climate change, among other factors.

The Haiti earthquake was not a factor in today's decision.

A news conference announcing the change took place this morning at the New York Academy of Sciences Building in New York City. The actual clock is housed at the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences (BAS) office in Chicago, Ill., and so a representation of the clock was shown at Thursday's news conference.

"We moved it back by just one minute, and what that means is there's great potential for it to move in either direction," Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist on the BAS Board of Sponsors, said at the news conference. Krauss added that for both nuclear weapons and climate change threats there has been "a sea change in attitude, an opening up of possibilities, but not yet a lot of action."Krauss is also at Arizona State University.

The last time the Doomsday Clock minute hand moved was in January 2007, when it was pushed forward by two minutes, from seven to five minutes before midnight. The change was meant to reflect two major sources of potential catastrophe that could bring us closer to "doomsday," according to the board of "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists," a magazine focused on warning the world of the dangers that the invention of the atomic bomb helped to unleash.

According to the board, the looming dangers included: the perils of 27,000 nuclear weapons, 2,000 of them ready to launch within minutes; and the destruction of human habitats from climate change.

State of the world

Today's announcement focused on both the positives and negatives surrounding ways to stem nuclear weapons and global warming, while not mentioning much about biosecurity, another threat that has come into play when determining which way to move the clock's minute hand.

"For the first time since atomic bombs were dropped in 1945, leaders of nuclear weapons states are cooperating to vastly reduce their arsenals and secure all nuclear bomb-making material," BAS scientists said in a statement. "And for the first time ever, industrialized and developing countries alike are pledging to limit climate-changing gas emissions that could render our planet nearly uninhabitable."

These unprecedented steps are signs of a growing political will to tackle the two gravest threats to civilization - the terror of nuclear weapons and runaway climate change."

Clock history

In December 1945, University of Chicago scientists who had helped to develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project created "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists." The Bulletin's board of directors then in 1947 came up with the idea of a Doomsday Clock to symbolize these threats. The message is that humans are "a few minutes to midnight," where midnight represents destruction by nuclear weapons, climate change and emerging technologies in the life sciences.

The hands of the clock move in response to changing world events, marching forward or back depending on the state of the world and the prospects of nuclear war.

When the Doomsday Clock debuted in 1947, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was occurring, with the time showing seven minutes to midnight. The time has since changed 18 times.

The closest approach to Doomsday occurred in 1953, when the clock was changed to two minutes to midnight after the United States and the Soviet Union each tested thermonuclear devices within nine months of one another.

And the biggest jump occurred in 1991 when the minute hand moved seven minutes, from 10 minutes to 17 minutes before midnight, to reflect the end of the Cold War when the United States and Russia were making deep cuts to their nuclear arsenals.

Since the "clock is ticking," BAS scientists urge various actions, including:

  • Completing negotiations, signing and ratifying the new U.S.-Russia treaty providing for reductions in deployed nuclear warheads and delivery systems.
  • Adopting and fulfilling climate-change agreements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Transforming the coal power sector of the world economy to retire older plants and to require in new plants the capture and storage of the carbon dioxide they produce.'

The Bulletin scientists also encourage much greater investment in developing alternatives to carbon-emitting energy sources, such as solar and wind, and in technologies for energy storage, and sharing these results worldwide.

Live Science Staff
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