Countdown to catastrophe

Alex O'Brien investigates the validity of the Doomsday clock and humanity's potentially impending demise.

15th February 2016

The ‘Doomsday Clock’ is a symbolic clock face that represents how close humanity is to its own extinction. The idea is that the closer the clock ticks to midnight, the closer the human race is to a complete global disaster. The clock was updated on January 26th by the ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’. Although there is no way of predicting (with absolute certainty) when this catastrophic event will occur, or indeed what it will entail, the Bulletin team, comprising of 16 Nobel Laureates, has as good a chance as anyone at successful prediction.

The clock has now been updated and this years’ time has remained the same as last year; 3 minutes to midnight. In a statement released by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, they described the main factors that have led to the unchanged clock face. In their statement they expressed concerns over the tensions between the United States and Russia that “remain at levels reminiscent of the Cold War”. They also considered the danger posed by climate change, and (of course) ever increasing global nuclear concerns.

“The farthest hypothetical point from the apocalypse was experienced in 1991 when the clock was reset to a refreshing 17 minutes to midnight”

The last time that the clock reached 3 minutes to midnight was in 1984. As in the statement released this year, the first point made in the 1984 statement referred to the U.S -Soviet relations, proclaiming that their relationship had reached their ‘iciest point in decades’ and voicing concerns on the onset of a possible new arms race with the creation of space-based anti-ballistic missiles.

But how much has the clock’s hand fluctuated over time since its creation in 1947? Well the closest the doomsday clock has ever been to midnight was in 1953, worryingly only 1 minute closer to midnight than the point we are at now. The hand of the clock was poised at 2 minutes to midnight. The reasoning for the prediction of humans being so close to self-destruction was of course, yet again, mainly influenced by the United States of America. The USA began to pursue the hydrogen bomb and tested a thermonuclear device, completely obliterating a small island off the Pacific Ocean. This in turn sparked the Soviets to test their own Hydrogen bomb not long after.

“they expressed concerns over the tensions between the United States and Russia that ‘remain at levels reminiscent of the Cold War’”

The farthest hypothetical point from the apocalypse was experienced in 1991 when the clock was reset to a refreshing 17 minutes to midnight. The reason for the human race being further from extinction than the previous years was thanks to the singing of the ‘Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty’ by the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War had ended and the signing of this treaty meant massive cuts and budget reductions in the pre-existing arsenals that both countries possessed. As one of the Bulletin’s main concerns was the nuclear weaponry held by these countries, the sudden cuts in this area subsequently caused the clock’s hand to move further away from midnight, and the extinction of the human race postponed just a little while longer.

Within the Bulletin’s statement this year, there were further intense warnings. Firstly that “the probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon” followed the devastatingly simple assertion that “wise leaders should act immediately.”

But is it all just a scare tactic? After all, the Bulletin of Nuclear scientists did aid in the creation of some of the first atomic weapons. Are they warning us because they feel responsible for the possible effects nuclear weapons can have? Or is this clock just some kind of annual egotistical plug about the end of the world to keep us looking up at them in awe?

The science may not have exactly been sound initially, as when the clock was created, it was set at 7 minutes to as the artist for the Bulletin (Martyl Langsdorf) thought “it looked good to my eye.” But they have come a long way since then. No longer does an individual have control over the time.

Since 1973, it is debated and decided twice a year by the Bulletin’s board of science and security. They utilise information such as the number and types of nuclear weapons in the world, the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the rate of sea level rise. The board also takes account the efforts to reduce dangers, and how strictly negotiated agreements are followed.

But don’t panic just yet. I can’t guarantee it, but I’m pretty sure we can continue to plan our lives beyond the next three minutes.

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