Doomsday Clock now at 90 seconds to Midnight – what does that mean?

Cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issue, featuring the Doomsday Clock at “seven minutes to midnight”

The best way to tackle what has happened is to first give you a brief bit of background on what the Doomsday clock actually is. Who sets this, and what criteria do they use to set it?

The concept was started by a group of scientists who had been part of the Manhattan Project. In June 1947 this group published the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and on the cover was a symbolic clock.

Midnight represented global catastrophe, and so as an expression of their deep concern, they set it to seven minutes to midnight. To be wholly clear, the concept is not political. As described by Eugene Rabinowitch at the time …

The Bulletin’s Clock is not a gauge to register the ups and downs of the international power struggle; it is intended to reflect basic changes in the level of continuous danger in which mankind lives in the nuclear age…

In other words, the intent was to communicate just how close we as a species are to being totally and completely fucked.

We have moved far beyond that initial seven minutes, and so through its various adjustments it is transitioned away from a print publication to a website and also rather a lot closer to midnight.

You can find the official website at this link –

Brief History of adjustments

Here it how it has played out … and why …

  • 1947 – Initial setting of 7 minutes : inspired by the development and deployment of atomic weapons
  • 1949 – 3 minutes : The Soviet’s got the bomb and so a nuclear arms race commenced
  • 1953 – 2 minutes : US has a thermonuclear device and so do the Soviet’s
  • 1960 – 7 minutes :US and Soviet’s respond to deep concerns by striving to avoid direct confrontation
  • 1963 – 12 minutes : Test ban treaty is signed
  • 1968 – 7 minutes : France and China, who have not signed the test ban, acquire and test nuclear weapons
  • 1969 – 10 minutes : Almost every nation state on the planet sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Only India, Israel, and Pakistan opt out.
  • 1972 – 12 minutes : US and Soviets sign Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
  • 1974 – 9 minutes : India tests a Nuclear device. The Strategic Arms Limitation talks also stall.
  • 1980 – 7 minutes : US Senate refuses to ratify Strategic Arms Limitation agreement and also Soviet-Afghan war begins
  • 1981 – 4 minutes : Reagan scraps arms reductions and argues only way to end cold war is to win it. Intermediate range nuclear missiles are deployed by US and Soviets.
  • 1984 – 3 minutes : Arms race between superpowers intensifies.
  • 1988 – 6 minutes : US-Soviet relations improve and new treaty is signed – they agree to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missiles
  • 1990 – 10 minutes : Berlin wall falls. US really is winning the cold war.
  • 1991 – 17 minutes : US and Soviet Union sign Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and also Soviet Union dissolves
  • 1995 – 14 minutes : US Military spending continues and does not ramp down. Deep concerns regarding what is happening to Soviet weapons and knowledge
  • 1998 – 9 minutes : India and Pakistan test nuclear weapons as a show of force to each other
  • 2002 – 7 minutes :US rejects series of arms control treaties. There are also concerns about nuclear terrorism due to missing weapons grade material
  • 2007 – 5 minutes : North Korea tests nuclear weapon. Iran is also striving to gain access to nuclear weapons. Climate Change also becomes a factor that is considered for setting the clock for the first time.
  • 2010 – 6 minutes : Worldwide cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and limit clime change.
  • 2012 – 5 minutes : Lack of action to address climate change or reduce nuclear weapons
  • 2015 – 3 minutes : Continued lack of addressing climate change. US and Russian nuclear weapons modernised
  • 2017 – 2.5 minutes : Trump comments on nuclear weapons and his disbelief in climate change
  • 2018 – 2 minutes : Failure of world leaders to deal with either Climate Change or threats of nuclear war. One word – Trump
  • 2020 – 100 seconds : End of INF Treaty, increased tension between US and Iran, and total neglect of tackling climate change

It remained at 100 seconds in 2021 and 2022. Then, on January 24, 2023 it was set to 90 seconds.

It suggests that right now we have never before been this close to midnight.


We will come to that shortly.

Here is a graphical representation of this little bit of history …

Doomsday Clock graph, 1947–2023. The lower points on the graph represent a higher probability of technologically or environmentally-induced catastrophe, and the higher points represent a lower probability, in the opinion of the Bulletin.

What motivates the new 2023 setting of 90 seconds to Midnight?

Never ever has midnight on the clock in its entire history been as close as 90 seconds away, so what is the thinking here?

They have issued a full statement to explain why.

Briefly …

  • The War in Ukraine – Russia’s thinly veiled threats that they will use Nuclear weapons. The exists a real possibility that an accident, intention, or a miscalculation, could very rapidly spin out of anybody’s control is a distinct and very real possibility. Russia has also broken the prevailing norms of respect for the independence and sovereignty of states
  • Russia also brought its war to both the Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor sites,. That violates international protocols and risks the widespread release of radioactive materials.
  • The last remaining nuclear weapons between Russia and the US will also lapse and unless talks commence, nothing will replace it
  • The Ukraine conflict has also undermined the global effort to tackle climate change. Starved of Russian oil and gas, other states have been forced to turn to increased investment in other sources for oil and gas.
  • The accusations by Russia that Ukraine planned to use radiological dispersal devices, chemical weapons, and biological weapons, has also ramped up a deep fear that Russia intends to use such weapons.
  • Other reasons that factored in also include the rapidly evolving variations of COVID-19 and also the risks that have been created by the rapid spread of disinformation.

In essence, the 90 minutes to midnight is because …

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the risk of nuclear weapons use, raised the specter of biological and chemical weapons use, hamstrung the world’s response to climate change, and hampered international efforts to deal with other global concerns. The invasion and annexation of Ukrainian territory have also violated international norms in ways that may embolden others to take actions that challenge previous understandings and threaten stability.

Who is this warning for?

You, me, all of us.

Specifically policy makers, but also all of us, our entire species, anybody who will listen.

Some might indeed criticise the clock as a political stunt designed to scare people into rationality, and that it is not an objective measurement.

Regarding it not being wholly objective, that’s probably true and I don’t think anybody would seriously dispute that. It is not a scientific paper but instead is a well recognised metaphor that we live with huge risks.

As for the charge that it is a stunt, nope, I must reject that claim because the risks are very real. If for example somebody was doing something very stupid, then I would ask if it is a “stunt” if you warn them of the risk they face.

When faced with the very real possibility of irrevocable harm then remaining silent is really not an ethical or moral option.

Further Reading

The place to go is of course the official website itself.

If you really do not want to read the book, then why not watch the movie instead …

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