Two Minutes to Midnight

A look at the Doomsday Clock throughout history

By Sam Mathers, News Editor

Last month, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Science and Security Board moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock forward by 30 seconds. The Doomsday Clock has served as a symbol of the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe, reflecting the threat of nuclear weaponry, climate change, and technology. It is now two minutes to midnight. In consideration of the imminent threat of nuclear war – particularly the progress of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and the “downward spiral of nuclear rhetoric” between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, the lack of global response to the threat of climate change, and the misuse of information technology, the Board has stated that this is “the closest the Clock has ever been to Doomsday, and as close as it was in 1953, at the height of the Cold War.”

PC: Martyl Langsdorf (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)

1947: 7 Minutes to Midnight. Created by Martyl Langsdorf, the Doomsday Clock appears on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for the first time. The Manhattan Project, based on Enrico Fermi’s research on nuclear fission (which Langsdorf’s husband worked on) created the first atomic bomb, sparking great debates among scientists at the University of Chicago about the dangerous technology. As the only artist they knew, Langsdorf was asked by the co-editors of the Bulletin to design the cover for the first magazine edition of their publication. She designed the clock hands ticking down to midnight based on the urgency of the conversations she had heard about the looming danger of the atomic bomb.

1949: 3 Minutes to Midnight. The arms race is officially started when Truman declares that the Soviet Union has tested their first nuclear device, and tells the American public that they “have reason to be deeply alarmed.”

1953: 2 Minutes to Midnight. This is the last time the Doomsday Clock was this close to reaching midnight. The United States had tested its first hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, leading the Soviet Union to subsequently test their own hydrogen bomb.

PC: The Official CBTCO Photostream (Flickr)

1963: 12 Minutes to Midnight. Atmospheric nuclear testing is banned when the United States and Soviet Union sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty.

1968: 7 Minutes to Midnight. France and China develop their own nuclear weapons as the involvement of the United States in Vietnam deepens.

1969: 10 Minutes to Midnight. The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is signed by nearly all of the nations of the world, except Pakistan, Israel, and India. The purpose of the treaty is to end the spread of nuclear weaponry, to achieve nuclear disarmament, and to promote peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

1972: 12 Minutes to Midnight. The United States and the Soviet Union sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, limiting the number of ballistic missile launchers that can be possessed by either country and stopping the development of an arms race.

1981: 4 Minutes to Midnight. The Soviet Union invades Afghanistan and Jimmy Carter pulls the U.S. team from the Moscow Olympic Games.

1990: 10 Minutes to Midnight. The Berlin Wall has fallen and many Soviet republics begin to secede from the Union.

1991: 17 Minutes to Midnight. The furthest the Clock has been from midnight. The Soviet Union officially dissolves after Gorbachev resigns and declares his office extinct, ending the Cold War.

1995: 14 Minutes to Midnight. The United States believes Russia could pose as great a threat as the Soviet Union. Fears about the potential abuse of the former USSR’s poorly secured nuclear facilities at the hands of terrorists circulate.

2002: 7 Minutes to Midnight. Following 9/11, global anxiety around a nuclear terrorist attack increases. The United States refuses to sign several arms control treaties and withdraws from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

2007: 5 Minutes to Midnight. Amidst growing concern around climate change, North Korea performs a nuclear test.

2010: 6 Minutes to Midnight. At Copenhagen, industrial and developing nations commit to taking responsibility for carbon emissions as concern around climate change increases. Negotiations to reduce Russian and U.S. nuclear weaponry are in progress.

2015: 3 Minutes to Midnight. World leaders fail to make positive and significant progress in the area of climate change, while the United States and Russia continue to embark on projects to modernize their nuclear weaponry.

2017: 2.5 Minutes to Midnight. With world leaders still failing to take palpable action to curb climate change, the problem becomes even more urgent.

President and CEO of the Science and Security Board, Rachel Bronson, PhD, stated: “It is urgent that, collectively, we put in the work necessary to produce a 2019 Clock statement that rewinds the Doomsday Clock. Get engaged, get involved, and help create that future. The time is now.”