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Doomsday Clock is stuck at 2 minutes to ‘midnight,’ the symbolic hour of apocalypse

  • Author: Lindsey Bever, Abby Ohlheiser, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 25, 2019
  • Published January 25, 2019

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is keeping the Doomsday Clock set at two minutes to midnight - the emblematic end of the world - calling the threats against humankind "a new abnormal."

The scientists announced Thursday that the clock is stuck at 11:58, citing nuclear weapons and climate change as two existential risks that leave the world dangerous close to an apocalypse.

Bulletin President Rachel Bronson told The Washington Post that the scientists felt that keeping the clock at that "daunting time" was appropriate because "the time corresponded to the message we were sending." She said the board was particularly concerned that "U.S.-Russian relations are near an all-time low," "the arms control architecture is deteriorating," and "carbon emissions are rising after a period of plateauing."

She particularly emphasized that "the intentional undermining of the information architecture for political purposes, which we view as a threat multiplier - makes everything that we're doing more difficult."

The clock, a metaphorical measure for the world's proximity to global disaster, advanced 30 seconds last year, to two minutes to "midnight." It had also advanced 30 seconds in 2017, but it did not move at all in 2016.

Bronson, the Bulletin president, said the time on the clock right now is the most dangerously close it has been to doom since 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs.

Although the time on the clock remains the same, Bronson said, some circumstances have changed over the past year. She noted that the scientists were encouraged that the rhetoric surrounding the Korean Peninsula has calmed, but, as for some other dangers, the scientists did not see a "qualitative" difference that would warrant changing the clock.

"In fact," she said, "we expect to be here for some time, in this precarious situation, which is why we're calling it the 'new abnormal.'"

The clock sits at the intersection of art and science, and it has wavered between two and 17 minutes until the apocalypse since its inception in 1947.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was founded by veterans of the Manhattan Project who were concerned about the consequences of their nuclear research. One of them, nuclear physicist Alexander Langsdorf, was married to artist Martyl Langsdorf, who created the clock and set it at seven minutes to midnight, or 11:53, for the cover of the group's magazine. Her husband moved the time four minutes ahead in 1949.

Since then, the Bulletin's board has determined how far the clock's minute hand will move, usually to draw attention to worldwide crises that it believes threatens the survival of the human species.

The Bulletin's reasoning has traditionally focused on the availability of nuclear weapons and a willingness among the world's great powers to use them. However, in recent years, the scientists have also considered the threat posed by climate change, which the scientists warned in 2007 is "nearly as dire" as the dangers of nuclear weapons.

The decision to move up the time on the clock last year was motivated largely by the Bulletin's sense of looming nuclear peril. It listed a series of grim developments: North Korea had made rapid progress in developing a thermonuclear weapon capable of reaching the United States. Relations between the United States and Russia had deteriorated, with no high-level arms-control negotiations happening between the two countries. And nations around the world were moving to modernize and enhance their nuclear arsenals.

In addition, the organization cited unchecked artificial intelligence, the alarming spread of disinformation and the public's eroding trust in institutions.

Bulletin members Lawrence Krauss and Robert Rosner wrote in an op-ed last year that the world was "as threatening as it has been since World War II." They noted at the time that "the Doomsday Clock is as close to midnight today as it was in 1953, when Cold War fears perhaps reached their highest levels."

Bronson, the Bulletin president, told The Post that even though time is currently standing still, “things can happen for good or for bad very quickly.”